We've got mail (digitized)

Historic Perkins correspondence from 1828-1910 is now searchable online, thanks to two dedicated Archives volunteers

Sue and Larry Melander with a large leather volume

Sue and Larry Melander have spent the last three years pouring over letters sent to Perkins between 1828 and 1910. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

January 6, 2016

Researchers now have easy access to nearly a century of Perkins history thanks to a three-year project recently completed by one dedicated couple.

Since 2012, Larry and Sue Melander have spent four hours every Thursday in the Perkins Archives pouring over thousands of letters sent to Perkins School for the Blind between 1828 and 1910. The original correspondence is preserved in 94 leather-bound volumes, some more than four inches thick, each labeled with the year they were received. 

“It looks like a shelf of big books but it’s actually just every letter written to Perkins,” said Perkins Archivist Molly Stothert-Maurer. “It could be from students, from parents, from the important people of the world, from Charles Dickens – they’re all glued into these books.”

Each volume contains a faded, hand-written index of names and page numbers, but until recently, there was no quick way to locate specific correspondence. Then, three years ago, the Melanders agreed to take on the daunting task of transcribing each index.

Thanks to their work, historians, academics, students and curious members of the public can now search the collection online, even for the most obscure letter-writers. High-resolution scanned versions of many of the letters are also available online.

“We have people who are only interested in mesmerism (hypnotism) and want to know what we have on this woman named Lurena Brackett,” said Stothert-Maurer. “Now, you can search ‘Brackett’ on our archives site and immediately find a letter from her. It’s a really powerful tool.”

For Larry Melander, who spent most of his career at Perkins before retiring as the program supervisor of the Lower School in 2006, skimming cursive lines penned by the likes of Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau provided a fascinating glimpse into life in 19th-century America through the lens of his favorite institution.

One letter he particularly enjoyed came to Perkins Director Samuel Gridley Howe from James Holman, an Englishman who was blinded in the War of 1812 and went on to become a famous world traveler.

“The letter we have is him talking about being presented to Queen Victoria,” Melander said. “He wrote to Howe because he was so honored – she talked to him and everything.”

Melander laughed as he imagined Holman’s excitement. “He must have been so beside himself.”

The collection also includes correspondence closely intertwined with Perkins’ history, including the earliest letters from Helen Keller’s father asking if Perkins could provide a teacher for his daughter.

Other letter writers were concerned with more trivial matters.

“One of the early letters was written from the female students to Howe, asking if there couldn’t be some better way to make the privy (outhouse) more private,” said Sue Melander. “They felt that the workmen could view them as they were on their way to the privy.”

Almost all of the letters were written with black ink in variations of swoopy old-fashioned script, sometimes requiring a keen eye to decipher. Two notable exceptions were a typed letter from Charles Thurber, an early inventor of the typewriter, and a letter from Charles Dickens, penned in blue ink.

“All of a sudden there’s the first letter in blue ink and it turned out to be from Charles Dickens,” said Stothert-Maurer. “He popularized blue ink because it was fast-drying and all of the journalists in England caught on.”

As an archivist, Stothert-Maurer believes strongly in the power of correspondence to illuminate cultural trends and attitudes. Having a digital index of Perkins’ collection will allow her to reference letters more often in her work, she said.

“The correspondence really sort of seeps into any exploration of the past,” she said. “These letters go beyond just the history of blindness – it’s history in general.”