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Editorial: The Handwritten Letter Is a Time Machine

  • Jenn Carter, of West Lebanon, found these 90-year-old love letters in her ceiling during a kitchen renovation project. She's trying to find family members so she can return them. (Photograph courtesy of Jenn Carter) Photograph courtesy of Jenn Carter

  • Theresa White, of White River Junction, Vt., left, Jenn Carter of West Lebanon, N.H., and Shannon Kivler, of Charlestown, N.H., talk about the letters found in Carter's kitchen ceiling during a remodeling process. Kivler and White are the granddaughters of Laura Johnson, who wrote the letters to Harold White in the 1920s. The couple later married and had four children. The group of women met in White River Junction, Vt., on March 15, 2018, for Carter to give the letters to White and Kivler, who she located via Facebook earlier in the week. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Letters written by Laura Johnson to Harold White in the 1920s are seen in White River Junction, Vt., on March 15, 2018. The couple married after these letters were written, and Jenn Carter, of West Lebanon, N.H., recently discovered the letters in the ceiling of her kitchen during a remodeling process. After locating Johnson's and White's grandchildren on Facebook, Carter was in White River Junction to return the letters. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Harold and Laura White with their daughter Patty in 1931. Family photograph

Published: 3/16/2018 9:19:49 AM
Modified: 3/16/2018 1:59:33 PM

The vast majority of letters to the editor received by the Valley News these days come to us via email, or through an online form that can be accessed on our website. Such electronic submissions are relatively simple to process, requiring little more than a copy-and-paste step to enter them into our content-management system and prepare them for editing.

Handwritten letters, conversely, must be delivered, opened, deciphered and retyped before the editing process can even begin.

But while electronic submissions have the advantages of speed and ease of handling (and are therefore, as a practical matter, likely to be in line for publication more quickly), they lack the visual and tactile charm of the handwritten letter.

This is especially true of personal notes (as opposed to letters on public issues that are intended for public consumption). And those of us fortunate enough to have received handwritten letters from accomplished writers know that there’s really nothing similar in the sphere of electronic communication. No emailed message or attached Word document — no matter how heartfelt or well-composed — compares with a letter penned in the writer’s distinctive hand on carefully chosen stationery, accompanied by an equally carefully chosen envelope and stamp and validated by an official postmark that adds the important context of date and place.

Opening such a letter these days is like opening a window on the past. Finding and reading handwritten letters from nearly 100 years ago is perhaps the closest thing we have to a time machine.

Which brings us to the story, recounted on Tuesday by web editor Maggie Cassidy on UV Index (the Valley News’ “quirky younger cousin,” as the online publication bills itself), of the discovery of a batch of love letters by West Lebanon resident Jenn Carter during a kitchen remodeling project.

In a message posted on the Upper Valley VT/NH Facebook page, Carter wrote that, during the demolition process, “many very old letters were found in the ceiling. They are from Miss Laura S. Johnson of West Lebanon to Harold B. White of Brattleboro VT.” A photograph accompanying Carter’s post shows two dusty bundles of 50 or so letters. The ones Carter has examined were mailed in 1925 and 1926. Through census records, Carter identified a Laura S. Johnson and determined that she died in 1998 and is buried in the West Lebanon Cemetery off Pleasant Street. “I was hoping she might still have family in the (Upper Valley) as I would love to return these letters to them.”

Within 30 minutes of Carter’s post, a woman came forward and identified herself as the couple’s granddaughter. Other family members soon chimed in, and arrangements were made to get the letters back into the hands of the family.

“The Upper Valley is small,” Cassidy wrote on UV Index, “and the internet is fast.”

Fast, yes, and also quite good at connecting people across vast stretches of space and, as Carter’s discovery and subsequent sleuthing shows, time.

Still, we wonder if we’ve lost something in our reliance on the various forms of electronic communication. “The internet is forever” Brad Paisley sang. But it’s not. We don’t gather up our email love letters and bundle them with twine. We drop our smartphones in the slush and destroy our old hard drives when we get new computers. Accessing old information is possible only with compatible devices. “Cloud” storage is only as permanent as the tech companies that host it. Digital data is easily altered.

Laura Johnson and Harold White’s family members now have an opportunity to travel back in time and “visit” them in their youth. But will the future granddaughter of a young couple courting today via email or text message have the same chance in, say, the year 2110? Or will the thoughts, emotions, passions and promises of this and future generations of lovers — inscribed in bits and bytes instead of ink and paper — disappear into so much digital dust?

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