Historical literature and film are full of sentimentality, of, for example, images of love letters tied with pink ribbon that are kept forever, to be found decades or generations later.
But how often did this happen in real life? For people who had big houses with attics for storage, and who never moved, a lot of things probably did get saved, if only because they were placed in the storage area and then forgotten. But for the ordinary person before the late 19th century and even beyond to the first half of the 20th century, it wasn’t the norm to keep things forever. It just wasn’t practical or affordable if you were moving house, for example, to lug along all the letters you’d received for the last 20 years.
In the 1950s, my nana moved from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island. She burnt everything that wasn’t needed, including family letters going back decades. My mother doesn’t know why, but can only guess that it was because it just wasn’t practical to move it all. Nana could see no purpose in keeping old letters, clippings, souvenirs or family documents no longer current, nor in spending money to have them transported.
I’ve been thinking about the idea that things must be saved for posterity since I was reminded recently of how much TV footage the BBC taped over or destroyed, including most of the British coverage of Apollo 11’s moon landing in 1969, which was the first time it had broadcast all night, for a start.
Today, it seems incomprehensible that the BBC also destroyed 97 early episodes of Dr Who in the 1960s and 1970s to save space.
The powers that be in those days, however, still harkened back to a different age. Though they were part of the 20th century, they still had a 19th-century mentality. Before the age of, progressively, mass photography, film, TV and, ultimately, video, there were of course no actual images of anything. Before photography, you had to be rich enough to have your portrait painted, and then the likeness depended on the painter’s interpretation and skills.
Before recorded music, you bought sheet music and played it yourself, or went to a live concert. There was no one authoritative version of a piece of performed music.
Long, long before that, before Gutenberg’s press became operational in the mid-15th century, most knowledge that ordinary people used was based on memory, not stored in books. Until the 20th century, it was mostly only the well-off who had home libraries of books.
The rise of sentimentality in regard to objects and the cult of keeping things almost to the point of hoarding them seems to me to be a modern thing.
We now have more memories of ourselves than in any other time in history: social media records our thoughts, photos, what we had for dinner, and other minutiae, as an everlasting record.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, we took photos only on special occasions and vacations, and then sparely, because developing and printing were expensive and took a week or more.
Today, we take photos of anything and everything, every day if we want, and post them to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter where they remain indefinitely. We have access to all our favourite songs, thousands at the touch of a button wherever we are, thanks to portable devices.
While these sorts of archives are digital, so don’t actually take up any space in the home, they encourage a mentality that everything must be kept.
I keep reading articles about our modern houses that are stuffed with way too much stuff. We only get rid of stuff when we need to bring in more stuff.
I am no exception, from ridiculous trinkets bought on trips overseas to piles of books I will never read again and clothes I’ll never wear again but that remind me of an earlier time. I used to save all my books because they were a talking point. When visitors came, one of the first things they would do is peruse your book collection.
I have got better at weeding out what I don’t need and I am gradually whittling down my possessions to those I use and appreciate. I would, however, keep old letters if I had them. I have only a few left, as almost all my childhood and early adulthood letters went missing during an international move. Now, of course, it’s not a problem since almost all the letters I send are emails.
Meanwhile, anything that is chipped, broken or not used goes out. Well, almost anything…
Caron – Somehow old letters really are different to other things we keep. They have a sort of soul to them, and certainly the tell you about the sender and recipient. I can see why one would keep old letters. But I know exactly what you mean about holding onto possessions. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the comedy of George Carlin or, having heard it, whether you like his style. But he had a funny and biting bit about ‘Stuff.’ His whole point was that we’re obsessed with ‘stuff,’ and we collect it. Until we get rid of it to get more ‘stuff.’ Your post made me think of that bit.
Oh, I must see if I can find the George Carlin piece. Thanks! Yes, old letters are still magical. Old postcards are wonderful, too. I did a blog post on one my dad sent me when I was a child: https://carondann.com/2013/03/18/new-york-1968-love-daddy/
I have a thing for old letters too. There’s something romantic about them. I still write them myself. Some people think I’m weird because of it, but hey, I guess I am weird.
It’s definitely a good thing to cut down on clutter, but never get rid of the book collection! (Well, unless of course it starts to take over your home.) 😛
And isn’t it wonderful to receive a letter, waiting in your mail box, with real stamps on it and a handwritten envelope. Those typed envelopes that are usually bills, I can do without!
I have had to cull my book collection over the years, unfortunately, especially as I have moved between three countries. But I have really only given away books I will never read again, especially tatty paperbacks.
It is exciting! & Yes, sometimes bills certainly make me want to cry. Especially those threatening second notices when you’ve fallen severely behind.
Ugh, yes. They are so much more imposing in print than via email.
great post, caron. i’m working on that too. going through everything and weighing what to keep and what to toss. I’m getting better at it the more i do it.
Thank you! I always say, if in doubt, don’t throw out.
I totally agree with you but I would love to find some old letters bound together with a pink ribbon, I guess I am a bit of a romantic, plus it would be a great project to find out more about the letter writer 🙂
Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to find such letters?
I am trying to do the same. “Trying” being the operative word 🙂
Yes, it’s hard. And hard to find time.
So much nostalgia in your words. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.
You’re welcome, and thanks for stopping by. Come back soon!
I read a statistic that said 10% of all photos ever taken have been taken in the past 12 months. Things have changed quickly. When I was growing up during the 90s we didn’t even take that many!
That’s right. It took the smart phone to come along for truly instant photography. Who would have known in the 1990s that anyone would want a combined phone and camera, not to mention a thousand other apps? Obviously, someone knew, as they were probably developing them back then! But yes, I now take a photo any time I see something vaguely interesting when I’m walking down the road, for example, or I take photos of information I want to keep. Once I was assigned a rotten old classroom to teach in, and I took pictures of it during the lecture and sent them to my supervisor so he could see just how bad it was (and we were moved immediately).
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