Old Letters

comments: 39

LettersYesterday  I spent the day by myself, making the rounds to different estate sales in my neighborhood. Estate sale-ing is always a hit-or-miss, slightly fraught experience; if it's a good one, there is a tension in the air that I find absolutely maddening, remembering the morning my parents held my grandparents' estate sale themselves, not knowing, I guess, how traumatic that experience can be for the family, which is why they're often handled by agents. I remember my mother immediately hustling us out of the house after the initial stampede of shoppers — people had been lined up down the sidewalk, waiting for us to open the door, and they literally pushed their way into the house. My sisters and I sat wide-eyed and appalled as they rushed to grab things off the walls. I doubt either of my parents had ever been to an estate sale before. It wasn't their thing, and I know it was painful for them to watch scavengers carelessly tossing things about as they looked for treasure. I think they always regretted doing it that way, but at the time it was the best they could manage, and once it started, what could they do?

Most of the amateur estate-salers I know are fairly responsible about the activity, I think; we have an appreciation and respect for the lives indicated by the wide-open cabinets exposing Sweet & Low packets, half-used Avon handcreams, piles of handkerchiefs — all now for sale. It's impossible not to enter these spaces without being reminded of one's own mortality, the impermanence of all our careful plans, efforts, and evidence. Nevertheless, sometimes what's left suggests so much. Sometimes you walk into a place and think, "Wow. She was just like me." There is a stocked pantry in a cool corner of the basement. There are sewing supplies carefully organized. There are stacks of greeting cards and letters wrapped in bundles. There is a collection of teacups and saucers obviously chosen for their spritely, delicate decorations. There are magazines saved from decades long past.

Yesterday was one of those. I wandered, slightly overwhelmed, bumping into others who were bumping into others, all of us scanning surfaces. On an enormous table were boxes and boxes of old greeting cards and various ephemera, as well as several small sealed bags filled with air-mail letters. I grabbed a couple of bags of them, along with some other stuff, and went on my way. Later that afternoon, many hours later, I went home and sat down to look at the letters. I read a couple and scanned through the envelopes. It became quickly apparent that there was a story here, one spanning several decades and at least two families. It was 3:40 p.m. I called Andy at work and told him what I'd found, and he encouraged me to go back to the sale to see if I could find the other letters. I raced upstairs, changed out of my pajamas (yes, I put them on the minute I get home), hopped back in the car and zoomed back over to the sale, which was closing in six minutes. There were two bags of letters left so I grabbed them, along with a few more magazines, and spent the rest of the day trying to organize the letters chronologically. It took hours.

Several big gaps are apparent. It's amazing to me that someone in the family didn't want these. I feel so upset that the group of them is now broken up — obviously, whoever organized the sale took stacks of letters and just split them up into different baggies and sold them off individually. I can see that someone in the family had been living at the address since the '50s. Whoever it was had kept letters going all the way back to the '30s, many written during WWII and the Korean War. They are an amazing collection of primary documents. I'll have more to say about them, I think, when I'm done reading the ones I have — I'm probably only halfway through. Perhaps many families have boxes of such letters — I don't know. Mine didn't; this is the first collection like this I've ever seen in real life.


What more has someone got at the end of their life but there story (or stories) in letters? What a gift. I am glad you are honouring a life by taking the time to organise them and maybe to read them.
This is a beautiful post.

It's always so fascinating to be able to take a glimpse into someone elses life. I'm sure when the letters were being written, the writer had no idea they'd one day be sold at an estate sale! I'm sure you'll take care of them- what a great find!

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who feels this way about estate sales. I always walk about ever so slightly and barely touching anything. It seems wrong to be going through someone else's treasures.

What an interesting find you came across yesterday. It's looks like you're building a real life novel.

It's rather sad to acquire the personal letters of a stranger - as you said, it's amazing that no one in that family wanted them. But perhaps there's no one left. In which case, the writer of those letters is probably thrilled that someone who cares has them. (Which may be a fanciful thought, but I like to think that way!)

What a great treasure you uncovered. It will be exciting to read your translation of these lifes you've discovered.

I'm constantly amazed by my boyfriend's mother who has so many historical memorabilia from both sides of her family. I don't think Josh realizes at this point how valuable those connections or life stories may be.

On the otherhand, my family has been so careless and tight lipped about life and family history. I'm blessed that I have a cousin who has spent 16 years researching geneaology on my mother's side. It makes me feel a little more connected. It's great to just sit and read through all the fabulous old-fashioned names.

What an amazing find! and a glimpse into a family's history. My family saved many things, but just now Grandma is opening up her cupboards and we are finding journals that my great uncles kept during WWII. My mom is trying to fill in the blanks to complete the history.

I am surprised too that the family didn't want to keep them.... but my father-in-law didn't want to keep his letters from Korea that he sent home. We have them carefully stashed upstairs... he doesn't know.

that is soooooo cool!!
i have a few old vacation, and college photo albums that were saved from the garbage of my great aunts house after she died. they are from the early 1900's. i think there's a story there too someday.

Once I bought a Victorian music stand at an estate sale. Inside the bottom drawer was an envelope that simply said "Mom." I opened it and found a lock of hair tied with a ribbon and a funeral card. It was the saddest thing I ever saw. I mailed it back to the house clearly marked "for the estate owner" who probably didn't realize what they were getting rid of... perhaps you could do the same? Another time I bought a Christmas stocking and on the way out the granddaughter stopped me and said it was hers from when she was a little girl...I immediately gave it back. Sometimes dealing with an estate and that much memorablilia can cause emotional shut-down for the family dealing with it. Agents don't care and the people are sometimes too emotional to go through all the "stuff." Then again sometimes they just don't care, so maybe it is best that you wound up with the letters...In any case share the story. I know you will tell it well!!

Fantastic find! You've inspired me to start looking for estate sales in my area. Love looking at the history of other families, especially ones that have been established in an area for a very long time.

Oh, and BTW, I put my PJ's on when I get home too :) Gotta get cosy, right?

Oh and am I the only sicko that imagines what my own estate sale will be like? I want people to love it. Coffee will be served to the line, it will open 5 minutes early and everyone will love my well-priced treasures as much as I did....

Your new old letters look like a treasure to me.

I'd love to know the story they tell.

My family has always been so sneaky that they've never written anything down! My Mother was distressed when I started a diary as a young girl. Odd family, I know.

My husband always buys photos at Estate Auctions (people don't really have sales around here, they have auctions). He has an obsession with them - he's really into photography and vintage cameras. He collects them and uses them in his own photography. So he likes to go through the photos and try to figure out what camera they were taken with, and the context of the photos. We are always amazed that there wasn't someone, if not a family member at least someone close to the family, who would want them! Sometimes I kind of feel bad about buying them.

I'm writing to say how much pleasure and inspiration I get from your blog. When I read your post about wanting to get a dollhouse (June), I felt motivated to take some pictures of mine and put them on the blog I was planning to create. Now I've created one, and you might enjoy looking at it. It's the entry for July 1st.

What a treasure you've found! My parents met through letters (the 1950's version of internet dating!) and I have no doubt that my mother has saved them all. I'll have to wait until she passes, as she will not share them while she is alive.

I feel the same way about estate sales as you do. I am amazed at the the personal items that no one wants. I feel like I'm intruding on a private space sometimes.

Thanks for your wonderful blog!

How interesting that the family would have bundled all those letters to put up for sale; I wonder what they were thinking? Letters are so obviously personal, and surely they knew this. What's even more confounding is that it is such a treasure, and it's so sad that someone in the family did not feel a connection enough to keep them for themselves. I'm also surprised that they chose to sell them, instead of destroying them. Maybe there's an incredible story there - hmmm. Perfect for a book editor to peruse; and even more perfect for an author looking for ideas and inspiration. Add that to your list!

I've never heard about someone collecting( so many )letters for such a long time - except the families of writers etc. What an amazing treasure. So sad it was broken up, but good to hear that someone who appreciates them has got a large part of them.

Anna Maria says: July 09, 2006 at 11:32 AM

Hello Alicia,
I just read your lovely post, as I do every day now, either in the morning or evening, and this time it brought tears to my eyes. Today is the 1st anniversary of my mother's death, and I am glad we did not have an estate sale.
We still have her apartment and most of her things are in it. I donated her clothes right after she passed away (something I still regret), gave a few ceramic or glass mementos to friends, and I myself have traveled back to her home twice since she died and brought back a variety of items, which I am so glad to have, even if I have nowhere to put them..
Since she died, every time I go to a trift store I wonder to whom the object belonged and, thinking of my own mortality, wonder where all my goodies will end up.
I LOVE that you got all those letters - it's somehow magical.
Back to the practical, before I read today's entry, I was going to ask a technical question, that maybe you or one of your fans could answer.
I would like to start my own blog, and was trying to decide which option of typepad is best. Or is one of the free blog services good enough for someone who does not have a website, but does have a lot of photos?
I notice that on your blog the photos are right there, in all their glory, as soon as it opens, but on some other blogs, the photos slowly "scroll" on. Would it have anything to do with the blog service the user has chosen?
Sorry, for all the questions, but I don't personally know anyone who blogs, or maybe they are not telling :)
Anna Maria

oh I am so glad you rescued those letters. Old letters and photographs are someone's history in print and when I come across them, I feel a sense of sadness-neglect and I take them home with me rescuing them from uncertain fate. Glad you found them.

How awfully sad. Someone had clearly treasured them just for a member of the family to toss them aside. I am so glad you found them and will treat them with the fondness they deserve.

A distant family member of ours recently died and the executors let an auction house in to do a valuation/sort before we were informed. Everything of a personal nature was thrown away. Letters, photos everything, just tossed in a skip. Just thinking of family history being treated in such a mercenary way makes me want to weep, be it mine or someone elses.

Wow. So sad that the family lost (didn't want?) this treasure, but it makes me happy that they ended up with a loving home, on where they'll be a mystery and inspiration. (makes me want to WILL my letters to someone!)

That letter collection is amazing and beautiful -- I have boxes of letters from my best friend, and sadly those letters stopped five or six years ago to be primarily replaced by emails, and now that she lives in Portland too, we mostly just talk. I'm glad the letters you found are in a good home, with someone who appreciates their true value. Also, I love that you changed into your pj's the moment you got home -- I do that too!!


what a really superb find. Maybe when you have looked after them for a while you could donate them to your local archive? They can preserve them permanently where they can available to social historians, authors etc alike. So many letters, journals and photos are lost to the future. But we can all do a little to preserve a little bit of the past for the future.

I am so glad you wrote this post. I have the exact same feelings of curiousity and regret and sadness when i walk through estate sales. I have been known to leave a few too choked up to shop.
I always go through them in a half-daze, the house is still so put together, but someone has just opened it up and put a price tag on everything. I feel sad to think there's no family members that wanted the tea set, or their grandmother's ironing board, or their granfather's carefully organized tools and labelled drawers of screws and picture-hangers.
And another part of me goes through thinking, "okay sweet little lady who just passed, I'm someone who is going to love your baggies of carefully color-coded buttons, or saved Christmas cards" And I'll keep them, and remember the house they came from.
I'm glad those letters fell into your hands, even better if they were in the hands of a daughter or granddaughter, but at least they are in the hands of someone who will appreciate the time and story and love passed in those words.

what a great find! I felt the same yesterday when i was at a flea market and found some wedding photos from the 50's...I was really sad to think someone had given/thrown these away and I quickly turned the photos to see if they had any sort of detail - who was this happy couple as they celebrated this wonderful occasion - it just makes u wonder....

I thought I was the only one who comes home and immediately puts on their pj's! Wow. If only you were my next door neighbor.. then I would never be embarrassed when I went outside to get the mail: )

I love what you found, even if it is sad. I finally came into possession of a bunch of letters, pictures, misc from my father's family. My father's sister made off with everything of any importance after my grandparents passed away. Her daughter, whom I do not really speak to, set them to my uncle who gave all of it to me. There was a letter to my grandpa from a friend addressed to him on the day of his wedding. It is the cutest letter (they married in 1926). There were his grade school cards (he was born in 1899), all kinds of wonderful things. I have put all of the family's genealogy together (grandpa back to Germany in 1492 and grandma's family back to John Bunyan who wrote the Pilgram's Progress). Just amazing things.
I hope you enjoy your letters. And I agree, I have such a hard time at an estate sale because all of those things belonged to someone who thought enough to keep those things and treasure them.
** I have a great one! My great aunt had cancer and was about to pass away. She asked me if I wanted Catherine Carpenter Bunyan's (my great great grandmother) sewing rocker brought down from Moultrie county, Illinois. I immediately said yes and came over to get it the next day. She told me she wanted me to have it because she knew I would love it and pass it down to Emma with the stories of my great great grandmother. Her children were not interested in such things!

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com