In the days before telephones and the internet, letters were the primary means of sharing information. Most cities had several posts, or mailings, per day.
In interpreting letters, students of history need to read beyond the words themselves and explore the deeper meaning in language, tone, and focus. Important political figures understood that future generations might see their correspondence, and they were often careful about what they said and the ways in which they phrased their thoughts. Private correspondence can reveal a great deal about everyday life, but here, too, the written word can mask deeper meanings. It is important to consider the identity of both the author and the recipient, the type of correspondence and why the letter was written.
Throughout much of history, women usually used correspondence to express personal sentiment, although as they became involved in more public activities, they, too, realized their words might be interpreted by others. As historical artifacts, the letters in the Jewish Womens Archive collection are significant for their subject matter and the way in which letter-writers conveyed their points. In interpreting womens letters, we must consider womens different communications styles and the reasons women wrote letters.
1. Discuss with your students the nature and value of letters as an historical source.
2. Have students bring in a letter they have written or received.
3. Have students complete Section 1 of the Student Activity Sheet and discuss their results.
4. Provide students with a letter from the Jewish Womens Archive collection.
5. Have students complete Section 2 of the Student Activity Sheet and discuss their observations.
6. Provide students with background information on this letter and have them complete Section 3 of the Student Activity Sheet.
7. For more specific questions, look at Discuss This Document in the individual documents.
8. Discuss students responses.
9. If time permits, have students do the follow-up activities in Section 4 of the Student Activity Sheet.