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The Humble Form Letter

Jul 20, 2012

Part of the fun of interns is they often catch onto something you miss working in the collection day in and day out. Today Rachel from Massachusetts shares her take on the form letter.

The form letter – a lowly, standardized piece of correspondence – is often demeaned in popular conversation. If a high school senior is accepted into the college of their choice, awesome! Nobody reading that letter really cares how many times University X has given their “pleasure” at accepting a “well-rounded and academically committed student such as yourself,” because, well, they got in! Then again, if that same student is rejected by their top choice – not only must they now face the realization that they are not good enough for said college, but they must also do so while reading how “sorry” University X is for not accepting them into the freshman class of fall whatever. Simply put, there were just “too many well-qualified applicants to accept all of them.”

Ouch.

When I started my cataloging duties for the Theodore Roosevelt Center, I had no idea how many form letters I would encounter over just four days, between June 10 and June 14, 1912. A large majority of them were from Roosevelt’s secretary at the time, Frank Harper, although he has “signed” just two: one to Judge Ben B. Lindsey on June 10 and one to Senator Joseph M. Dixon on June 12. While Roosevelt himself tendered form letters, none of the ones I cataloged contained even a signature, just an empty space under the valediction for him to sign!

Below are just two of the form letters I found while cataloging. Although there were other, quasi-form letters, the ones mentioned are identical except for the recipient’s address, typed in the lower-left corner, and the seldom-used switch from “Sir” to “Madam” when the letter-writer happened to be female.

The “You’re Not Roosevelt’s Friend” Letter

 

Letter from Frank Harper to S. C. Roach

Letter from Frank Harper to S. C. Roach, June 10, 1912. From Library of Congress Manuscripts division.

 

This letter is characterized by the phrase “floods of correspondence,” an easily identifiable phrase that is unique to Harper’s message which is “Thank you for you letter to Theodore Roosevelt, but he is so busy with his ‘real’ friends that he cannot even sit down to write this himself,” etc. In one reel alone, I found 186 letters just like this.

My dear Sir:

Mr. Roosevelt desires me to tender to you his thanks for you letter. He would write you a personal note of acknowledgement, but he is almost overwhelmed by the floods of correspondence from his friends. He very heartily appreciates all that you say.

Faithfully yours,

Secretary

 

The “I Can’t Accept This Because of Reasons” Letter

 

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Alexander H. Leo

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Alexander H. Leo, June 10, 1912. From Library of Congress Manuscripts division

 

This letter’s text is long, but its message is short: Roosevelt has been asked to speak by the letter’s recipient at an unnamed event but has to decline. Even at first glance, however, this letter screams “FORM!” See the phrases “for my friends to realize my position” (instead of “you”) and “from such a body as the one you represent” (and not, for instance, “from such an [adjective] body as yourself”). The text is simply too awkward and uniform to really feel unique. 

My dear Sir:

I wish it were possible for my friends to realize my position, not for my own sake, but because then they would understand just why it is that I cannot accept all the invitations which come to me. From now on I wish to avoid making any speech that I possibly can avoid, and greatly though I appreciate an invitation from such a body as the one you represent, it really is not possible for me to accept. I cannot undertake anything further of any kind of sort now. I am very sorry.

Sincerely yours,

I encountered so many copies of these two form letters (the one from Harper especially) that I found it easiest to just create my own form description when entering each letter’s metadata. The “You’re Not Roosevelt’s Friend” letter got: “Frank Harper thanks [recipient] for his letter to Theodore Roosevelt on the latter’s behalf and apologizes for the lack of a more personal reply.” Likewise, the “I Can’t Accept This Because of Reasons” letter was described as: “Theodore Roosevelt explains to [recipient] why he cannot accept [recipient]’s invitation to speak and apologizes for doing so.”

Although I cannot even imagine how much correspondence a former president and current political candidate would have received in 1912 (let’s migrate that to today and the number has risen exponentially – excluding the fact that we now have email, Facebook, and Twitter as well as paper correspondence), I sort of feel sorry for those fortunate enough to receive a reply. After the luster of, say, “Cool! A response!!” has worn off, one starts to wonder how many other people received the exact same response as they did.

Rachel is a second-year graduate student at Simmons College with a concentration in archives. She holds a B.A. in media studies from Emerson College and spends her free time on Tumblr or with her nose in a book.

Posted by Rachel Alexander on Jul 20, 2012 in Digital Library  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)  |  Share this post

Tom said,

Rachel, would the reason you find so few form letters signed be that they are carbon copies, and the practice was not to sign these copies? Fun work. I once received a form letter from Vice President Quayle's office, to which was attached another form, directing his staff how to respond! I forget who was offering the instructions, but it would have been at a time when word processing still required some vague response, but since your name and address was crisply typed on what looked like an original, you thought you were getting first class treatment (smile).

Rachel said,

Tom- Maybe... my hypothesis is that Harper (or someone lower) typed up all these letters and then, one step later, the appropriate person would sign their name. However, your carbon copy theory does hold up, considering that the TRC has thousands of letters sent from TR or Roosevelt's secretaries - when they should have been long gone with the mail.

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