Show & Tell: A Century of Illustrated Letters
120 years of handwriting so bad it necessitates visual aid, or why hipsters didn’t invent irreverence.
By Maria Popova
Remember pen and paper? And how they came together to produce… gasp… letters? The Smithsonian certainly does – in fact, they remember and celebrate those most memorable of letters that go beyond mere words.
Enter the Smithsonian’s archive of Illustrated Letters — a wonderful collection of tortured love letters, violently opinionated reports of current events, gloriously rich thank-you notes, a handful of far-fetched excuses, and various other forms of visually written self-expression from the early 19th century to the late 1980’s.
Although the collection is a shots-in-the-dark nightmare to navigate, with some patience and a bit of luck you may just uncover some real gems.
And perhaps a few delightful oddballs.
Then, of course, there’s the exercise of decoding the world’s most impossible handwriting. Which, actually, is why we half-seriously suspect a number of those folks resorted to illustrations.
The Illustrated Letters collection is pulled entirely from The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, hand-picked by Curator of Manuscripts Liza Kirwin. It’s truly a cultural treasure, but perhaps it is most valuable as a reminder to us know-it-all millennials that we didn’t in fact invent visual creativity, or irreverent wit, or sarcasm, or dark humor, or any of those “quintessentially hipster” qualities that ooze from the letters and set we so boldly like to credit ourselves with.
Plus, it reminds us of Dan Price‘s wonderful Moonlight Chronicles.
Published February 3, 2009