I spent several days last week working through archived papers of women journalists. I’d been to the National Women and Media Collection at the University of Missouri before, but this time I was concentrating on the correspondence of the women I study, gazing at their professional and personal lives as I leafed through files of letters to readers, letters to family, letters to each other. I found myself feeling grateful for these women’s epistolary habits, for their journalistic use of typewriters, and for the care that they and their correspondents took in saving the missives. Oh, and carbon paper. I’m really grateful for carbon paper.
I knew many of the facts of these women’s lives. What they did, where they did it, who they did it with. But letters, written in the moment rather than remembered in an oral history, imbue the events with context and personality.
Consider Roberta Applegate. Here are the facts of her life, summarized in the biography on file at the archives:
Roberta Applegate was one of the first female journalists in Michigan. She received her A.B. degree in German and French from the Michigan State University, East Lansing, in 1940, and her M.A. degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1942. She then became a reporter for the Associated Press of Michigan. From 1947 to 1949 she was press secretary for Michigan Governor Kim Sigler, the first woman to hold that post. When Governor Sigler was not re-elected, Applegate became a reporter and editor for the Miami Herald in 1950. She remained with the Herald until 1964 when she became an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kansas State University. Applegate has received many journalistic awards and held various positions in organizations involved with journalism.
Oh, but what can be learned from a few letters. Two letters from June of 1948 – with the salutation “Dearest Family” – were written from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, days ahead of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. As Press Secretary to the Michigan governor, Roberta is in the thick of things. She reports on “an interesting visit with Edward R. Murrow, who is younger than I realized,” and that “Dorothy Thompson spoke at the State Dinner and gave a lot of blah. I’m glad to have heard her but am strictly not impressed.” She provides a preview of upcoming convention strategy:
But she also reports on the scenery as she sits at her typewriter, the suitability of her wardrobe, a clam bake on the coast, and the joy she felt when her brother arrived and greeted her with a bouquet of red roses.
Two years later, Roberta began her job at the Miami Herald. That is the fact. But her almost-daily letters to her family in Michigan tell so much more. The search for a suitable apartment. The unrelenting heat and humidity. Her nervousness about meeting colleagues, making friends, and finding an inspiring church. Her pride when she receives compliments from readers, the clubwomen she reports on, or – even better – editor Lee Hills.
I’ll use a great deal of this material in my book. I now understand Roberta’s ambivalence and ultimate acceptance of moving back to a women’s department after her time in the powerful position of press secretary to a governor. I’ve read her first impressions of coworkers at the Miami Herald – other women that I write about. I know the details of her daily work schedule – and I marvel at her stamina in getting through it. More important, though, is feeling that I now know Roberta Applegate a little bit better by being allowed access to the missives she sent home to East Lansing, Michigan.
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I have felt this way before. When writing my book War Makes Men of Boys: A Soldier’s World War II, I spent months reading, transcribing, and re-reading the 300 plus letters my father wrote to his parents during World War II. I still look at those letters every day as I tweet (Dad in #WWII) excerpts from what my dad wrote home 70 years ago. Through these letters, I came to know my dad as a scared and homesick 18-year-old, then saw him grow up over two and a half years of war and family loss.
I have also been on the receiving end of such letters – most memorably when I went to summer camp as a child. The “letters from daddy” written to me and my sisters were always the hit of the tent or cabin. Typed on the very old royal typewriter that sat in our den, I still have the copy paper letters. The salutations reads “Dear Starbright” (my sisters were Sunshine, Moonbeam, and the like), and the letters are full of the news from home, reports on the Detroit Tigers, and attempts to relieve my homesickness. They are full of the puns that Dad was famous for:
Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight … will not be Kathy Miller, of course, because Kathy Miller is at Camp Narrin, and, as they say, east is east and west is west and Narrin the Twain shall meet. Besides there aren’t many twains left these days because everybody takes airplanes or cars.
More than 30 years ago, after I graduated from college and lived far from my parents, Dad suggested that we follow the habits of families of the past and embark on a regular correspondence by letter. I tried – but not very hard. But I was really busy and a regular phone call seemed to do the trick for catching mom and dad up with what was going on in my life. How I wish, now, that I had tried harder. That I established that connection through the U.S. Mail that required thought and patience. How different my relationship with my parents might have been – and what I might gain from being able to leaf through those letters today.
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We live in a connected world. We see others’ lives through email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We are told that the Internet is forever. But there is so much information and it moves so fast through our newsfeeds that little of it seems to matter.
Commentators bemoan the “fading art of letter writing” and the effects this will have on writers, readers, researchers, and our culture. I share these concerns. But I’m grateful that I come from a family of letter writers. I’m grateful that my work now puts me into contact with women who were prodigious correspondents. I’m grateful that I could sit down with a cup of tea yesterday afternoon and be transported to sultry Miami in 1950. And I’m grateful for those old Royal typewriters … and for carbon paper.
Thank you to the National Women and Media Collection at the University of Missouri, part of the State Historical Society of Missouri.