Old love letters inspire to this day

Liz Maguire with some of her letters. Photo by Rafal Kostrzew

By Liz Maguire

Letter writing has seen a resurgence in popularity in the last year. In today’s technological world the craft of letter writing has been a lost art. But, hopefully, that will not be the case for ever.

I am an avid letter writer, a self-professed “snail mail superfan” and also the hand behind Flea Market Love Letters, a digital archive of vintage love letters. And I'm interested in your letter stories.

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Today I live in Dublin where I work as the Digital Marketing Manager for My Irish Jeweler. In my spare time I curate Flea Market Love Letters and enjoy talking to “letter lovers,” as I call the readers of the project.

I began collecting vintage photographs, postcards, and mail as a teenager. I was raised by a pair of avid antique and ephemera collectors named Paul and Linda Maguire in Pennsylvania.

I grew up exploring flea markets along the East Coast for treasures and trinkets. While still a high school student my mother purchased the first letter “collection," or series of letters by one author, for me. That collection was a series of letters from the 1920s written by a Pennsylvania Highway Patrolman to his much younger, seemingly less interested, sweetheart.

I continued to add small pieces to the collection over the years. It was in 2017, while living in Washington, D.C., that I began the Flea Market Love Letters archive. Since then the archive has shared some three hundred letters from over a dozen collections. And it continues to grow daily.

It is the principle of the archive to respectfully preserve the ephemera and memories of letter writers. While named Flea Market Love Letters, many, but not all of the letters tell a traditional “romantic” story.

Several are between romantic partners while others detail family relationships, often between U.S. service men and their siblings or parents. Letters published via the archive paint a vivid picture of life through both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Roaring 1920s, and yes, even the "Spanish Flu."

One of my favorite things to do with the letters in the collection? Whenever possible I enjoy bringing the letters back to a place in their timeline. In July, 2019 I visited the home of twin sisters Jess and Bess Frankenfield in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The only catch was that Jess and Bess Frankfield had lived there over one hundred years before. I visited the house with a letter dated one hundred years to the month. Written to Bess Frankenfield by her World War I era beau, Jess McCook, the letter was dated July 9, 1919. In his note, Mr. McCook wrote to Ms. Frankenfield: “They [McCook’s parents in Texas] think you are the greatest girl I ever had. When they meet you I am sure they will not be disappointed for you are all and more than you pretend to be.”

I would describe returning to the house with a letter in hand as deeply emotional. The public record indicates that neither Frankenfield sister ever married, leaving Flea Market Love Letters readers to wonder what happened between Jess McCook and “the greatest girl” he ever had.

In February of 2020, myself and my partner, Sam Lemberger, visited Lucerne, Switzerland. In my carry on? Why, a series of letters and photographs dated from Lucerne in 1924.

Not many couples might enjoy spending their vacation tracking down the same landmarks as in a nearly eighty-year-old photograph, but myself and Sam had a wonderful time. It was like putting together a puzzle finding exactly where Alice Stocker, the writer of the letter and presumed photographer, would have stood. To have Alice’s words as well? Priceless.

Alice Stocker, in 1924, wrote of the this Lucerne landmark: "First of all, we went out to the wonderful lion of Lucerne -- a huge sandstone cliff with the most life-like carving of a lion in the side of the cliff, cut out of the solid stone. We have been back to it several times, for it is most cool and comfortable in that spot and so wonderful to look upon."

Meantime, I could not forget my backyard of Dublin. In the summer of 2020 I visited several landmarks in Dublin city center with postcards depicting the landmarks from the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. In one postcard, posted to Surrey in England from Dublin in 1949, the Bank of Ireland on College Green is depicted in full color.

Originally, the building served as the Parliament of Ireland from its construction in 1729 until 1803 when it became the Bank of Ireland. The author of the Postcard in 1949 was staying down the road at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street, about a ten-minute walk.

The reverse of this card reads: April 24, 1949: Gresham Hotel Dublin...“Getting overfed but recovering from a poor night journey over much kindness here and a few days in the country -- from Tuesday to Saturday will keep. Back here Saturday till Monday. Monday night Holyhead Hotel. Tuesday night Great Easton Hotel. Liverpool St. Ewell. Wed: will phone. Hope all well with you all."

To be able to walk the same steps as those letters some seventy, eighty, or one hundred years later reminds me and my “letter lovers” why the Flea Market Love Letters archive matters.

Letters capture the essence of a moment in history. They are written by the every-man or woman who wakes up and not only has to get on with life while wars, pandemics, and economic depressions go on around them, but dares to love and celebrate the small joys. History is written by the victors they say. But letters? They’re written by the heroes.

Thanks to the generous support and encouragement of readers, friends, and family I estimate the archive now has nearly one thousand individual letters in approximately ten to fifteen collections. Do you have a letter story? Perhaps you are the sole protector of great grandparents' love letters. Or did you write letters to a loved one while stationed abroad in the service? Are you looking for advice on how to preserve or transcribe a priceless family collection of letters? I want to hear from you.

In every attic, dresser drawer, or shoebox under the bed, incredible stories are waiting to be told. You can email the project at info@fleamarketloveletters.com. Keep up to date with the project by visiting www.fleamarketloveletters.com, and following the archive on Instagram.