Old letters and reading glasses

It can't be underestimated just how valuable written correspondence was to society and individuals in the 1870s, which is why I included a passage in The Haweaters in which Anne Amer scours a letter she's received from an old friend in Owen Sound, attempting to wring every ounce of information from what appears on the page and what she believes to be written between the lines.

In the 1870s, letter writing was a crucial means of communication in Ontario. It would've been the primary way Manitoulin Island's earliest European settlers would've communicated with the friends and loved ones they left behind elsewhere in Ontario as well as in the countries they left to migrate to Canada. These handwritten letters were often meticulously laboured over and it was not uncommon for the author to go through several drafts before producing the version they would ultimately post.

And while the proliferation of railways meant the pace at which people and letters moved greatly sped up during this time period, correspondence between Manitoulin Island and the mainland continued to move at a snail's pace, largely because letters needed to be brought to the island by ship, which meant islanders living in Tekhummah were at the mercy of the lumbering operation at Michael's Bay to move the mail between the island and the mainland on one of the company's lumber hookers. Once on the island, letters would be delivered to a local farm where there would be a box in the front room from which neighbours could collect incoming letters and leave outgoing letters that would be retrieved the next time a mill employee came by. That would've happened fairly regularly from spring through fall, but winter was a different story. It wasn't uncommon for correspondence to stop for months at a time due to weather conditions that prevented ships from navigating to and from the island.

In addition to facilitating communication between loved ones, letters helped disseminate news and ideas. Local newspapers often published the contents of personal letters as firsthand accounts of events and tended to be filled with the sorts of stories that today we would consider gossip. Personal letters also carried political, economic, and social news, allowing islanders to stay informed about matters beyond the island.

The letters continue to have value today, revealing nuances of language, etiquette, and social norms that were prevalent at the time. The formal language and elaborate expressions reflect the politeness and propriety that was so highly valued during the Victorian era and give us insights into interpersonal dynamics, family relationships, and social hierarchies of the time.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.