Today’s post is by Candice Blazejak, an Archives Technician on detail at NARA’s Innovation Hub in Washington, DC
Researchers and curious visitors come into National Archives facilities everyday looking for long lost information or out of general curiosity. They focus on what the records contain more so than what they look like. Recently, I started a detail for the Innovation Hub at the National Archives and part of my day-to-day consists of looking at digital images of Civil War pension records scanned by “Citizen Contributors.” As a lover of history just looking at the documents as images and not historically significant pieces was a little difficult. I wanted to read every document for some hidden meaning. Ultimately you soon realize that the documents don’t hold more than the general information needed in order to approve or disprove a claim for a pension. Though the pension records can be packed full of information, as you look through the images you start to notice something else. Art!
Graphic design isn’t something that’s typically done on documents anymore. We are so technology driven that we forget the simple art of penmanship, letterheads, or just simply writing a letter out by hand. I was not familiar with the evolution of letterheads or “letter paper” as I saw it referred to for early 19th century documents. Where else do you go but to Google, and I found so many blogs and websites dedicated to the “Evolution of the Letterhead.” Quite fascinating once you dive into it, but the images that I found in NARA pension records are Bureau of Pension documents, marriage certificates, sometimes just envelops or postcards. One document I found so striking was because of the calligraphy on the postcard (calligraphy is a lost art as well, but I’m staying focused on letterheads for now).
The Bureau of Pensions’ letterheads from 1912 and 1908 found below were addressed to widows of Civil War soldiers. While both seem to have the same designs and image, looking closer you can see that “Widows” was extracted from the 1912 letterhead. The iconography in the image I am sure has a deeper meaning, but I can only speculate as to what each object would mean in its placement. War is of course symbolized there with the cannon, cannon balls, and rifles, while you also have the protection of the American flag with the women shielding it from harm. There is a globe which I am assuming depicts the world, but the images of the sheep leaves me a little baffled. I am going to assume the sheep are there depicting new life? Going way out on a limb with the depictions, these iconographic images in the letterhead can be seen and interpreted as art through the design and possible interpretation of the symbols found within. After all they are engraved, so some thought went into how the department wanted the letterhead to look. Why take the time if there wasn’t some importance?
Bounty Land warrant application files typically don’t include the following certificate. So finding the image below in the catalog was a real treat.
Colonel Richard E. Parker’s widow, Elizabeth Parker, was granted eighty acres, and the following certificate was included in the Bounty Land Warrant Application file. The entire document has artwork and historical clues, the top portion depicts horses running free across the plains, which is to show the Bounty Land being rewarded to the soldier from the War of 1812. As the date note tells us in the NARA catalog, Congress did not authorize Bounty Land for service after 1855, although there are some records dated later than 1855 in the collection.
Of the two portraits depicted on the document, I can safely say the one is Andrew Jackson and the other, Winfield Scott. (At least I am assuming that is who he is. I had to do some research … and reach out to some history professional friends. The friends seems to know who he is). They are of course surrounded by flags and weapons depicting warfare. Through the art we can interpret what the document is about before even reading it.
Really these letterheads or “letter papers” as they were once referred to are pieces of art. With the artistic depictions and calligraphy they could be framed.
If you want to see more, search NARA’s catalog “citizen contributor” pension records and bounty land records. Or come into the Innovation Hub and scan some records, so you too can see these interesting pieces of art in person!
Click the links below to see the complete files for the images from above in the National Archives Catalog: