Exploration HQ Highlight: Letters from the Past
By: Hannah Brevoort
One of the best things about our interactive Exploration HQ station at the Ohio History Center is that you can touch every object we have to offer! If you stop by in March, you can access one of my personal favorites: the letters of Giles “Guy” Simon. Like many parts of our Permanent Collection, we’ve acquired our Education Collection (what we call the things you can touch) over time. We’re not sure when exactly we received this box of letters, but from the moment I opened it I knew it was special.
The letters in the box as we found them. The box also has an Ohio connection – it’s from the defunct Cleveland department store Halle Bros. All photographs courtesy of the author.
The letters in this collection document the courtship and marriage of Guy and Mary Simon, at least from Guy’s perspective. We believe Mary kept his letters together in this box, since we have none of her responding letters!
One of Guy Simon’s return addresses.
So who were the Simons? Mary Simon was born Mary Anspach in Shelby, Ohio in 1905. She published four books of poetry, one of which we have in our Archives, and worked for the Shelby Salesbook Company for over 40 years as well as the Shelby Wilkins Airforce Depot during World War II. Based on the return addresses on some of the letters, it appears Guy worked for a railroad (possibly the Pennsylvania) and either moved or traveled for work. Return addresses on the envelopes are from Detroit, MI, Tiffin, OH and Shelby! The letters date from around 1920 to the 1950s, so they begin when Guy and Mary were dating and continue into their marriage. After a certain point, the letters are addressed to Mary Simon instead of Mary Anspach!
Some of Guy Simon’s negative comments about President Roosevelt, written on D-Day.
The letters themselves offer unique insight into the past. Not only are they a frankly charming window into a blossoming relationship, but they also provide a window onto historical events. Guy wrote to Mary throughout World War II, although we can’t determine whether he served, and several of his letters are quite critical of President Roosevelt. In particular, Guy seems disgruntled in one letter that FDR announced D-Day before it happened!
Letters written in shorthand.
We’ve not been able to read all the letters, though, because some are in shorthand! For those of you not old enough to remember, shorthand is an abbreviated, symbolic language meant to increase someone’s writing speed. Shorthand was commonly used in the United States from about the mid-1800s and taught in schools until the 1970s or 1980s. It was useful for secretaries, police and journalists – anyone who needed to write fast! Based on context clues within the letters we can read, we believe Mary taught shorthand classes at some point. At the very least, she was extremely well-versed in it. Hilariously, some of Guy’s letters in shorthand have annotations made by Mary, correcting his symbols. She also annotated several of his letters in English with shorthand translations. There are several types of shorthand but unfortunately none of my coworkers or I know any of them, meaning these letters remain a mystery!
Guy Simon’s letter annotated in shorthand by Mary Simon.
Birthday cards with handmade paper.
Another treasure in this box of letters are the cards. We have nearly a dozen Valentine and birthday cards from Guy. Some appear handmade, though we can’t know whether Guy made them himself, and feature beautiful, intricate designs. Others are clearly store-bought and feature jokes typical of the midcentury period. These cards are some of my favorite pieces to share with visitors because they’re so unique!
This collection of letters tells the story of an ordinary Ohio couple, but what I’ve learned from reading them is that there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” couple! The Simons had inside jokes, they teased each other, they discussed work and politics and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. So much of Ohio history has nothing to do with famous battles and presidents – most of it is about the lives of people just like you and me, and we’re proud to preserve those stories. If you’d like to see the letters (especially if you can read shorthand!), stop by Exploration HQ any time in March and ask to see the Simon letters.
Learn more about shorthand:
Check out other letters from our collections on Ohio Memory: