Behind the Scenes at Flea Market Love Letters.
Updated: Sep 20
Recently I was sent a lovely DM on Instagram by a friend of the project who suggested a post about conservation and storing vintage letters. This got me thinking! So I did a quick poll to see if there might be any interested in a peak behind the curtain to see how the sausage gets made at Flea Market Love Letters HQ. And....it seemed several of you were more than slightly interested!
One of the first supporters of the project: our cat, Kato. His official title was Photography Supervisor and Keyboard Warmer.
The number one question I get is where do the letters really come from. Honest to goodness its flea markets! Before the age of COVID-19 when we could go outside I found almost all the letters I had prior to March 2020 from sellers at flea markets. In 2018 I moved to Ireland from the East Coast of the U.S. so flea market hunting became a memory. My family in the U.S. however continued to feed the fire and found me several great collections elbow deep in mildewed boxes sold by a woman who would raise an eyebrow and go "You want those? I've another box in the trunk hold on." Pure bliss.
Here is a rare glimpse of Mama Flea Market and I at one of our favorite markets in the U.S.
Then COVID started to hit and Ebay and Etsy became my virtual hunting grounds. I swear once to Mailman told me delivering to our house during COVID was worse than Christmas with the amount of things I was ordering online. Still get a kick out of him delivering old mail, again.
New letters for archiving arrive regularly! These are some fresh from a seller I love in the U.K.
After acquisition, I like to spend an afternoon "in the zone". I'll unwrap my treasures, glimpse lines or stationary to make your heart stop and then get to organizing. This involves gently opening the letters and sorting them chronologically (fun fact: the dates on envelopes are not always the date a letter was written or even very close to it!).
This particular bundle of letters is a World War I series.
I store my photos in clear sleeves in binders. They really should be in museum quality plastic but for the time being and for nearly 500 letters I've got a system which works for me. If you're looking to start preserving a private collection the first things I'd say are: Get them flattened out. Get them away from each other (especially if they're pencil -- that will rub!) and get them in chronological order.
While a bit more expensive than office supply store quality binders and sleeves, artist portfolio books are my preferred method of storing.
If you're storing pencil remember that the average it will fade and disappear. There are stationary nuts out there who will know the exact type of paper and type of graphite that never fades but for the sake of this project: a guy in 1942 was not writing with the best materials. Remember that!
Pencil is the bane of existence in letter collecting. Photograph clearly and closely.
Next comes photography. There was one afternoon where I photographed 150 letters, three times each. It's a good thing I see a Chiropractor, regularly. I like to take my photos all in one sitting, in natural light. In the past I've preferred a nice, neutral background. A wood floor or table top is usually best. I've played with scanning and I've played with backgrounds. But natural light is always my favorite. Recently I've gotten very into patterned backgrounds. I set up the background, letters and camera (I use my cell phone -- gasp!) and get cracking.
About 90% of my camera roll looks like this on any given day.
When transcribing I can usually do three letters a day. Sometimes a letter can be a postcard, sometimes it can be seventeen pages long. On the days when I have three seventeen pagers in row, I often like to take a nice stiff drink afterwards. Just kidding, sort of.
A throwback to when the project started on Tumblr in 2017!
You have to remember that this project is for fun! I like transcribing all at once but if the time doesn't suit I will organize the letters chronologically, photograph them, organize the files and then transcribe as I got along posting them to Instagram or this blog. The next question I get after where do I get my letters is: How can you read all that handwriting? It's so small!
Answer: After a time, they become like a friend. I learn their slopes, their dips, their pressure points and the words they just can't crack spelling. So in the beginning I'll transcribe one to three letters fairly slowly until I can get a handle on the handwriting. Then it's the years of experience I have typing from text as an English major that lets me type without looking at the screen.
Admin wise it's fairly boring from there on out. Once I have the letters transcribed and photographed, I edit the photos to cut out background noise. Then I'll set up the letter and transcription as a blog post.
Back when we could work in coffee shops!
Next, comes sharing! I keep these letters in batch drafts on the site as they're ready and release as the letters go live on Instagram. I set up a grid on the designated letter page on the site, upload the edited photos and link to the blog from there. On Instagram I'll choose a quote from the letter I think is really indicative of that letter's tone or purpose and make sure to link people back to the site for full transcriptions.
Finally I get to sit back and enjoy the community! I do this project for free. If the family member of a letter subject were to ask me to take a series down, I would absolutely. I make no money, in fact I spend more than is probably advisable between materials and time, but I love this community and the project that inspired it. There was a time when these letters had no one to remember them. This project keeps them alive.
At the end of the day...it is a passion project!