Love Letters in the Attic

LettersHistorical 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 Nana could see no purpose in keeping old letters, clippings, souvenirs or family documents no longer current, nor in spending money to have them transported.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…