• Airmail letter to Dallas Pratt from Elsie and George

The importance of letter writing

July 5, 2017 - Isobel Zarb

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On a recent trip to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam I was reminded of the importance of letter writing and documenting our memories in written form. As a twenty-one year old with modern technology at my fingertips, it may surprise some that I partake in written correspondence.

There’s a certain thrill at arriving home after a long day at work to find an envelope on the floor addressed to you; enclosing a letter that the writer has specifically put time aside to dedicate to inform you of his or her life.

I was reminded once more of this craft on my first day of my placement at the American Museum, when Cathryn, curator of archives, presented me with a box of letters that belonged to one of the museum’s founders, Dallas Pratt.

Working through this box is fascinating work. The first letter I picked up, for example, was from Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, thanking Dallas Pratt for his “kind letter.”

And goodness! A letter from President Eisenhower informing Dallas he would certainly read the book Dr Pratt had sent his way.

Letters from writers and actors also adorn this box, with invitations to exhibition openings and celebrity parties.

Dallas most certainly had an illustrious social life, and how he had time for all this correspondence is beyond me.

Whilst letters from politicians and celebrities are certainly enjoyable to work with, my favourites have been from Dallas’ friends, particularly Dick, Ben, Elsie and George; I feel like I am on first name terms with them now.

It has been a privilege to have a glimpse into the lives of these friendships, to learn of their hobbies and their loves.

Dallas, for example, requested a kedgeree recipe from Dick; who was only more than happy to share it. Friends delighting in having a Sony Walkman in 1987 and Ben, who had eye surgery, which thanks to the NHS cost him “not one penny piece.”

What has also become apparent during this work is the kindness of Dallas Pratt.

“You have given me courage, hope and renewed my, at times sullen, spirit for the future,”

said one friend, in a series of emotional letters to Dr Pratt. One letter finished thanking Dallas for bringing love and happiness into their long lives.

What an honour to be able to have such an insight into these people’s lives.

Not all the letters have been so positive, however. I have read of concerns of British politics, fears of world peace, and of friends passing. There’s something quite eerie about becoming immersed in letters between friends and then the correspondence suddenly coming to a stop; only to realise that they had passed away.

What is so special however, is the fact that these letters remain here today, and thanks to the American Museum and the work that it does, they will be here for many years to come, cementing their place in modern history, and documenting the life of an extraordinary man.

And while few of us will be receiving letters from the Prime Minister, I encourage you to put pen to paper and write a letter to an old friend, a new friend, or your Grandma (they love that sort of thing).