Back when only a few people in each town were literate (and therefore conducted most of the written business of the town and wrote any letters that townspeople had to send), the French devised a system whereby these appointed literate folks would also keep their town’s records.
A professor here acquired a over 100 years of these records from Esternay, spanning from the French Revolution to 1895, and has been digitizing and transcribing the letters from that collection for the last many years (with the help of students in the French department). Now, the collection is online (though still under construction). The Esternay Project includes scans of over 800 letters, their transcriptions, and then their translations.
From the page describing the project:
The core of the collection is the familial, business, political and patronage correspondence of three generations of notaries and landowners Jean François Poirrier, Louis François Poirrier and Louis Alfred Poirrier who consecutively held office at the municipal, cantonal, departmental and national level from the time of the French Revolution down to 1895 when Alfred Poirrier, while sitting in the Senate of the National Assembly, died. Apart from the letters of their wives and daughters (Louise Eulalie Poirrier, Sophie Guillemain Poirrier and Denise Poirrier) and Alfred’s two brothers (Charles and Paul Poirrier) and assorted friends and kin, the archive contains a selection from a much larger mass of notarial documents including the correspondence of various clients of the notarial office of Alfred, his father and his grand-father . We have also included a small sample of items from the documentary remains of Alfred’s political and administrative career which provide insights into the everyday workings of electoral politics in the first three decades of the III Republic. Aside from the personal correspondence of the family, our site now offers only a sample of what could be included in a much expanded version of the Esternay Project but even so we believe the site can serve as a window into the lives of French men and women as they lived through what was certainly one of the most tumultuous periods in their nation’s history.
I’ve always been intrigued by family letters. I covet a copy of the family letters my maternal grandfather’s family kept, and my favorite book is 84 Charing Cross Road. Unfortunately, I am terrible at writing letters, myself. I don’t now if that lack of talent feeds my obsession with reading other people’s letters, or if it’s just natural curiosity, but a project like this calls out to that deep part of me that loves letter writing above all other genres.