Part 1 - Epistolary History with Amy Sudduth

Updated: Mar 11

Listen to the podcast here. Today is a special post, as it’s our first guest post! We’re joined by Amy Sudduth, a historian, researcher, and epistolary enthusiast—a person who loves everything related to letters. From a young age, she gravitated toward epistolary history. Her letter writing resume is even more impressive than most adults’—she learned how to

write with a quill pen while studying Latin as a kid, and soon after decided to dedicate her life to studying history and working in museums. In high school, she worked in Old Town San Diego, where she helped to develop and put on historical demonstrations, and education programs.

After college, she moved to Virginia, which led to her obtaining a position in the post office of Colonial Williamsburg. While there, she embarked on an in-depth research on postal history, and historical writing methods and materials, helping to expand interpretation at her facility, and leading to a life-long enthusiasm for those topics. After the post office closed, she transitioned to another store in Colonial Williamsburg, which specializes in 18th century fashion.

In her free time outside of colonial Williamsburg, Amy spends her free time with her three amazing cats, two young boys, and her partner-in-crime, Brian, who is also a historian. Amy is currently writing two books, and leads the Wax Seal Society on Facebook. She brings history alive, and is a sheer joy to speak with! I thoroughly enjoyed the entire interview, and I know you will too. So curl up with a warm cup of tea, or a glass of wine, and enjoy!

Kay: Thank you so much for being here Amy! I feel like I’ve been learning centuries of research from you in our emails, even just from my initial questions about the postal service, and the ways people sent letters that was different from our 21st century romanticized ideas. So let’s start there.

Could you tell me about some of the misconceptions or things that were very different in that time than what we imagine today?

Amy: Absolutely! There are actually centuries of postal history in my head, so for practicality’s sake, I’ll start in the early 16th century. The postal system goes back that far, but really this early, it’s just lordship-to-lordship, king-to-government, and political letters. There weren’t many personal letters, and those were hand-delivered. In fact, there wasn’t really a mail carrier until the 19th century. In the 1700’s, postal systems were just post-office to post-office.

The first misconception that surprises people is that there were no stamps! Those didn’t come around until the 1830’s.

There was a small period in the 1600’s where a gentleman in London started his own penny-post. He ran a service where you brought him a letter that was going somewhere in London, he paid a newsboy to run it to the individual, and paid him a penny for it to be delivered within an hour. The problem was, the king wasn’t a fan of this enterprise. This gentleman was getting very rich, very quickly—the king got mad, so the king shut him down. He responded by suing the king. He claimed he now had no way to make a living. This gentleman bothered the king so much; the king finally gave him a pension to have him leave him alone. So there was a penny post early on, that went away.

By the 1700’s, it was post-office to post-office. It could take a long time, but it could also be very quick. My favorite example is the declaration of independence was in London, which was in the king’s hand by August 5th. It left Philadelphia in July—that’s not much time to get across an ocean. I’m still not sure how they did it so quickly.

The early postal system was mainly port-to-port: Boston to New York to Williamsburg to Charleston in boat. By doing it in this fashion, you could get a letter very easily within a week, depending on the tides. But if it had to travel over land, that would be marked down and measured, the post master would write in the corner where it was coming from, and it would travel to the destination. The postmaster there would have a massive chart, and would find out how far it had come, and how much that would cost. The receiver had to pay for it!

Now, there were definitely cases of young men writing to their fathers, asking them for money—some things never change across the centuries. In these cases, when the fathers wrote back to the sons, they would prepay the postage. You also saw “open mail,” where if someone was just trying to spread gossip, or news, he wouldn’t seal his letter, just fold it up and send it off. Anyone who had it in their hand could read it. When it arrived at the post office, no one would claim it, as they have already read it. Some printers advertised people to send them an open letter.

Kay: For those open letters, what kind of gossip would that be?

Amy: It really was the full range. Much of it was news, especially of certain battles, but every once and a while, you’d get someone trying to slander someone else. “I saw this gentleman in this place when he had absolutely no business being there.”

But, the other part of that system, where the receiver paid, is that it’s technically a legal fine—if you didn’t pay it, the post master could take you to court. A lot of time when I tell people that, I’ll see their eyes light up, thinking it’s a great way to pranks someone. It really wasn’t though, as paper was very expensive, and the person could refuse it. Yes, the postmaster could pursue them, but that didn’t happen very often.

What would happen then to these unclaimed-letters, is the postmaster would put advertisements in the newspaper, telling people to come claim their papers. So we know even today who got mail and didn’t pick it up.

If the mail sat there for over a month, the postmaster could take and sell those unclaimed letters to the tavern owner. It became almost like tabloids—they would open letters, and whatever was in it, everyone could read. If you weren’t sure the contents of your letter, and didn’t want the entire city to know about it, you should probably come claim your letter.

Kay: Such a classic way to motivate them—come claim your dues, or we’ll shame you in a public bar! *laughter* I know much of your research has been around “dead letters,” I assume that is mail that was never claimed, correct?

Amy: Right! It’s honestly what we have the most surviving examples of, which were in archives. These unclaimed letters would sit in boxes in post offices. If there wasn’t a fire, the boxes would just sit there. So here we are, decades later, and a historian like myself can walk in and go “Look at this beautiful pile of paper treasure! This is mine now.”

It honestly gives us a perfectly preserved example of a wide range of things. There’s a post office museum in Charleston SC, and they have on their wall unclaimed letters. Just getting close to them, and seeing the paper covers, and seeing “that’s a mourning letter, that’s bad news, that’s this”—just seeing the exterior of the envelopes feels like finding treasure for me.

Kay: I know on the wax seal side, black often meant bad news. I think there was a story of someone who used black wax because they didn’t have anything else, so they had to scribble an explanation on the outside. I’ve also heard of 19th century mourning letters having a black edge on them to identify them as well.

Amy: Yes, there’s actually photographs of them! There’s a certain coda of rules to follow, where you would seal your letter with that wax if it was bad news. In the 18th century, the 1700’s, it was the age of enlightenment, so they were much more practical and straightforward. (That’s why I would rather live in that century as opposed to the 18th century, when they were having conversations with bouquets of flowers!)

But there wer