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Monday, February 4, 2013

P.S. Write Soon!

Volunteers at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, have learned that every collection tells a story, whether they’re sorting through boxes of old photographs, business records, cookbooks, or sheet music. They recently worked together on a project – the Sandford Card Company Records and Family Papers – that yielded not one but many stories. The collection includes business records, greeting card samples, correspondence, diaries, photographs and other personal items from the family of Mary Elizabeth Sandford, who founded a greeting card company in 1906. Dating from 1861 to 2004, the materials chronicle changing times and several generations in the life of an American family. The Archives Center’s volunteers often took time out to show off their favorite discoveries or read aloud first-hand accounts of births, marriages, deaths, wartime combat, friends who struck out for “the Dakota territory” and the thrill of a home newly lit with electric lamps. They share here their favorite highlights from the collection:

Sandford Women Sitting on a Hill
After days of reading letters Anne Jones found one she knew was worthy of the attention of the group. “Well, Kate, here we are four miles from the doomed city of Savannah…” wrote William Sandford to his aunt on December 18, 1864. This twenty-year-old soldier in Sherman’s army proceeded to describe in vivid detail the places, people, and even the animals he saw during the famous “March to the Sea.” Despite his excitement at the prospect of the victory to come, he remembered to mention the ten dollars he would be sending to his younger brother, Charlie.
Theresa Worden took special pleasure in creating custom housing to protect and store many of the two and three-dimensional objects found in the collection. Her favorite was a sink mat to hold a small leather purse. “The little beauty was well worn; the leather of its accordion-style pockets was supple from age and use. The contents of the purse were intriguing and helped reveal the identity of the owner as Mary Elizabeth Sandford.”

First page of letter from William Sandford to his Aunt Kate, December 18, 1864
A handwritten receipt for twenty dollars was dated May 3, 1878, making the purse and its contents at least 130 years old. Mary Elizabeth Sandford purchased some items from a dry goods store, including a pair of gloves, hosiery and four collars at Spinning Uhl & Company in Dansville, New York. She spent $1.38 on the items. There were also five “calling cards,” each engraved with a single name, evidence of social etiquette in practice. “You really can learn something from a woman’s purse!”


The receipts and calling cards are preserved with the purse they were hidden in for so many years, residing in transparent sleeves built into the custom sink mat.

Nancy Beardsley found that like every family, the Sandfords experienced their share of sadness and tragedy. “They described their losses with such heartfelt emotion that I found myself grieving along with them. I was especially moved by the correspondence of Mary Elizabeth’s sister Emma Jane Kennedy, who sent home lighthearted reports about her new life as a student nurse in upstate New York, and like many young people, was scolded by her relatives for not writing more often.” Then came an 1883 letter from a family member saying “Our girl is gone, gone, gone.” Still in her early twenties, Emma had apparently been struck down by a sudden illness. The letter went on to recount how bravely she faced her final hours. It was a reminder of how precarious life could be in an age when serious illnesses were much harder to treat than they are today. “I was also impressed by how difficult it must have been to weather a crisis without access to telephones and computers,” Nancy added. Another family member learned of her sister’s death in 1862 through a brief telegram that began simply “Carrie is dead. Come to Trenton.”

Home Just Before Christmas, photoprint, 1915
Marian Tatum-Webb chose to work on the personal papers of Helen Sandford (McDowell), who had a rather large assortment of postcards. “I have always enjoyed looking at postcards, so when I came across ones made of genuine leather in the Sandford Collection I was intrigued.” Helen Sandford received a number of leather postcards, many in 1906. The postcards included a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and numerous others that were whimsical. “As you can imagine, these postcards have held up very well over the years,” Marian noted.

Postcards on leather, 1906

The Sandford correspondence reveals how important it was to the family to stay in touch. Their letters were often many pages long, and they sometimes began by noting how much time had elapsed since they’d last written. Their company notebooks even include samples of cards reminding recipients that they haven’t been heard from for a long time, and that a note would be greatly appreciated. They seemed as preoccupied with their handwritten notes as we are now with e-mail and texting.

Postcard, 1911

John Joseph Sandford, who left his East Coast home in the early 1900s to study engineering in Rolla, Missouri, provided evidence of something else that hasn’t changed over the years. His letters were filled with pleas for money, mostly sums of $25.00. Other than the small amounts, the letters could have come from any college student today.

Postcard, 1909

Nancy Beardsley commented, “I was struck by how well the writers expressed themselves regardless of age or education. The time and care they devoted to communicating with one another seemed perfectly fitting for a family that founded a greeting card company.”

Man and woman filling orders at Sandford Greeting Card Company, photoprint, ca. 1910

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