Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Show & Tell: A Century of Illustrated Letters

120 years of handwriting so bad it necessitates visual aid, or why hipsters didn’t invent irreverence.

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.

David Carlson to Mrs. Jackson

And perhaps a few delightful oddballs.

Philip Guston to James Brooks

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.

<br /> Warren Chappell to Isabel Bishop

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.

via Coudal


Published February 3, 2009

https://www.brainpickings.org/2009/02/03/smithsonian-illustrated-letters/

BP

www.brainpickings.org

BP

PRINT ARTICLE

Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated