Letter writing, consisting of thoughtful and meaningful two-way communication, is an endangered art, threatened to near extinction. The letter, carefully crafted to both entertain and inform, has been replaced by short bursts of thought-deficient rhetoric and diatribe, spontaneously constructed and instantaneously lost to the universe.
Many thoughtful letters of the past, written with carefully honed penmanship, have been preserved through the generations, and today serve as useful tools in interpreting past humanity. This correspondence once connected loved ones, when letter writing was the only readily available means of communication.
A text book inscribed with the name of Annie Ryan was recently discovered by Bob Johnson among his late wife’s artifacts. The book demonstrates that letter writing was in actuality a learned skill, studied in the classroom, and taught to children as young as nine years old.
The book, “First Lessons of Composition,” contains grammar lessons, “with copious exercises.” This particular edition was printed in 1875, but was based upon work compiled a quarter of a century prior.
The book’s scholarly author introduced letter writing as the first division belonging to prose composition.
“What makes this an important branch? The necessity that exists for all persons, no matter what their business may be, to write letters.”
One of the first rules outlined in this chapter was to write in a simple and concise style.
“Before commencing your letter, what is best to do? To think over the various subjects on which it is intended to write, and draw out the heads on a separate piece of paper. In this way repetition will be avoided, and a proper arrangement insured.”
To ensure a neat appearance for the letter, the following advice is offered:
“Draw two light pencil lines parallel with the left edge of the sheet, the first about half an inch, the second an inch, distant from it. Commence your composition, and each paragraph that follows, on the second or inner line; but carry out the body of the composition to the first or outer marginal line. When you have completed a page, erase the lines neatly with india-rubber.”
A rule of thumb for 19th century letter writers that is particularly appreciated by today’s researchers is thus:
“A letter should always be dated. The date consists of the name of the place, the day of the month, and the year; thus ‘Charleston, January 1, 1869.’”
Who is the letter addressed to? This grammar primer covers that topic, too.
“In the first line of the address, give the name and title of the person to whom the letter is written. On the second line, address a gentleman as ‘Sir,’ ‘Dear Sir,’ or ‘My dear Sir’ – a married lady as ‘Madam,’ ‘Dear Madam,’ or ‘My dear Madam’ – according to the degree of intimacy.”
If the recipient is a family member, follow this guideline:
“A relative is properly addressed by the name that indicates the relationship; as ‘My dear Father,’ ‘My dear Aunt,’ ‘My dear Nephew.’ Or, a relative or friend may be addressed by the Christian name, if intimacy will allow it; as ‘My dear Sarah,’ ‘My dear William.’”
While many 19th century letters survived in family hope chests for future generations to peruse, the ultimate lifespan of today’s cyber communication is - at best - uncertain.
Who was Annie Ryan?
The textbook referenced in the accompanying article was issued to Annie Ryan, a student at Hannibal’s St. Joseph Academy pre-1900.
Who was she? The 1880 census found Annie Ryan, then 15, living with her parents, Timothy and Annie Ryan, on Union Street in Hannibal. Mr. Ryan was a retail grocer and like many other businessmen of the era, operated his store out of the family’s home, which according to a Hannibal city directory was located on the southeast corner of Sixth and Union on Hannibal’s South Side.
While young Annie was born in Missouri circa 1865, both of her parents were of Irish descent.
Young Annie’s siblings were Ellen, Julia, Catharine and Mabel. In the 1900 census, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan were at home at 600 Union, with their youngest daughter, Mabel.