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Eighteenth-Century Letter Writing

Introduction

Without phones, computers, or the various electronic devices we have today, letter writing was the primary form of communication with people in the next town, another colony, or across the ocean. While letter writing is becoming a lost art with the evolution of texts and social network posts, the language and style of colonial writing is often rich in its use of language and detail. In this lesson, students will read and respond to real letters from eighteenth-century correspondents using eighteenth-century words and phrases.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the differences between written communication now and in the eighteenth-century.
  • Read for context and infer appropriate responses.
  • Practice writing a letter using eighteenth-century words and phrases.

Materials

    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Handout - How to Speak and Write Eighteenth-Century Style
  • Letter 1: Edmund Dickenson Letter from Valley Forge
  • Letter 2: Letter from Bernard Moore to John Norton July 25, 1770
  • Writing paper
  • Letter template from the American Instructor (for lesson extension)
  • Wax and seal (for lesson extension)

Strategy

  1. Lead a discussion about writing in the twenty-first century. Ask students:
    1. how people communicate in writing (email, text, letters, notes, etc.)
    2. why people communicate (thank you notes, invitations, requests for services or payment, offers of goods/services, legal documents, birthday or holiday greetings, etc.)
    3. what is used for written communication

      Write student responses on the board or overhead projector. Add any answers students may not have thought of (like letters to and from soldiers, acceptance letters for colleges, etc.).
  1. Ask for student volunteers to come up to the front of the room and cross out (but not erase, so the answers can still be read) any answers that would not apply to the eighteenth century (for instance, the first student might cross out email. The next student might cross off computers.) 

  2. Distribute the handout How to Speak and Write Eighteenth-Century Style. Answer any questions and clarify unfamiliar vocabulary.

  3. Give half the students Letter 1 and half the students Letter 2. Explain to students that they will be responding to their letter as if they are the intended recipient (Lucy Dickenson responding to her brother Edmund, for example). Students should use eighteenth-century words and phrases in their letters.
    [Note: Students could also work on their letters in pairs.]
  1. Ask for student volunteers to share their letters.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Compare the Lawrence Luckless form letter with that of Bernard Moore (see discussion questions).
  2. Students bring to class a recent e-mail, text, or social network post and translate it into the form of a colonial letter.
  3. If materials are available, have students fold their letters and address the back. Then carefully burn a candle and drip the wax onto the folded letter to seal it. Have students stamp the hot wax with an object that would leave an imprint. (Sealing wax and seals can be ordered online.)


This lesson was written by Dee Besl, Cincinnati, OH, Sharon Sobierajski, Buffalo, NY, and contributing editor Claire Gould.

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