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The irony that a futurist would find his passion in history. But this University of Chicago undergrad did just that. And with it, he’s bringing joy as well as a fresh look at history to people of all ages all over the world.
Michael Sitver, who will graduate in just under two months with a political science degree from the private university known for its rigorous academic programs and where just 2,500 out of 31,000 applicants were accepted in 2016, created Letterjoy, a “spontaneous weekly dose of history and an enjoyable offline escape from the age of iPhones.”
Two years ago, Sitver, who had intended to get into issue advocacy in the nation’s capitol after college, went to his mailbox. It was something he said he didn’t do often, as, like many young people nowadays, he doesn’t receive a lot of mail from the U.S. Postal Service. He said he had just been reading historical letters before going to check his mail and realizing how much he would like to receive similar letters, or letters of any kind, for that matter. But while he’s always been a history buff, he’s also admittedly a futurist who said he thrives on new technology and innovation.
The irony is not lost on him. “History is a great guide to how we respond to technology for the future,” he said. Think Sears (formerly Sears, Roebuck and Co), Walmart and Amazon, he said.
“I’ve been studying Sears & Roebuck. They went from a small manufacturing company, to a massive retailer to a dying retailer. That’s interesting in the context of Walmart and Amazon. People can have a recency bias. They think Amazon is so huge, and no one will ever displace them, but the entire history of retail runs counter to that. Things people say are unprecedented often have a lot of precedence.”
Nevertheless, it occurred to Sitver that history could not only teach people about the present but that it could be a warm and welcoming message in their “old-fashioned inbox.”
He said it’s the experience of tearing into envelopes to pull out a surprising letter on classic cotton paper or parchment and a real stamp—an experience smart phones cannot match—that draws many. For others it’s the ability to delve deeply into an historical event or movement without leaving home. Still others make receiving their letters a family affair. One Letterjoy follower on Twitter said she reads her letters aloud to her family in the voice she imagines the author would have had. Another said, “You learn without trying.”
For a fee, Letterjoy will send reproductions of 100% authentic historical letters (or telegrams) written by legendary figures and eloquent eyewitnesses. The topics change about every four weeks.
Sitver said he finds the letters in some of the finest archives, institutions, small libraries and special and private collections on the planet. “Some times we have to go to out-of-print books because a lot of the letters are not necessarily written by famous people,” he said.
For more information on sourcing, and the philosophical debate over what constitutes authenticity (and Letterjoy’s stance on it), Sitver welcomes visitors to his site to reach out to him.
Patrons of Letterjoy can choose personal memberships or gift weekly historical letters from figures like Thomas Jefferson, Clara Barton, Albert Einstein and George S. Patton to someone they care about.
Although Sitver says though all ages make up his clientele, the concept is specifically catching on with older adults who may not be able to visit libraries and aren’t particularly computer savvy. “A lot of our members are limited by their mobility or technical prowess,” he said. “But they are still very eager to learn about history. Other people use our letters as starting points to give them the history and context of an event, and then they can spend the day researching based on the context we’ve given them. Every Letterjoy letter comes with background information to contextualize it, and to help you explore important events from a new angle.”
One disabled 20-year-veteran of the U.S. Air Force and retired historian wrote Sitver a letter after his son had purchased him a membership to Letterjoy. The man said in his lifetime he had worked as a curator, exhibits manager and archivist in state government. “…whenever I open one of your letters, I feel young again, like a child on Christmas,” the man wrote. Along with the knowledge he gleans from the historical facts and perspectives presented, he said the letters remind him of a time when he was able to spend countless hours researching on his own. “However, I am now home-bound and no longer able to get to a library,” he wrote. “Thanks for bringing joy to a tired old veteran.”
Young people are catching on too, Sitver said. “It’s a broad mix. Younger people are also interested who are fatigued by social media. They are looking for something more tangible.”
Letters mainly focus on American history from 1600-1960, but Sitver said the company covers a wide array of subjects within that time period, and topics are explored from new angles every week. Every letter is accompanied by a post script section which explains the context in which the letter was written, who the author and recipient were and how it relates to other events throughout history.
Some recent topics shave included:
- Presidents & the Press: A look at the relationship between US presidents and the media from Thomas Jefferson to today.
- The Birth of Aviation: Four letters from the 30-year period where powered flight went from a dream to an affordable mode of transportation.
- The Right to Vote: Letters from the American Revolution to the 26th Amendment.
- Judicial Challenges: Examine some of history’s most intense inter-branch battles, from the era of George Washington to the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
- Civil War Spies: First-hand accounts of the dangerous life of espionage during the American Civil War.
- American Expansion: The manifestation of “Manifest Destiny,” and the real stories behind the Louisiana Purchase, the Republic of Texas, Hawaiian Annexation and the Pig War.
Sitver said he has recently been given permission by Andrew Schapiro (President Barrack Obama’s ambassador to the Czech Republic) to use Schapiro’s own family’s special collection of letters for an upcoming topic. “The topic will be about life for a Czech-Jewish family during the Holocaust—the entire story of the experiences of refugees trying to flee Nazi persecution.”
“We want to provide people with a first-hand accounts of historical events that they’ve heard about or studied about. We want to provide a new perspective on famous events, to allow people to relieve the history through the yes of people who experienced it.”
He said the letters could also be used to provide an entertainment outlet for dementia sufferers who are known to remember more about historical events in their lives than the events of the present day.
Sitver said Letterjoy sends letters to recipients on six continents. He said he has seen his letters gifted to everyone from college students to grandparents and to people of all professions, from top politicians and captains of industry to local reverends, veterans and teachers.
Categories of membership include the “History Nerd,” who loves history and is looking for a season’s worth of historic mail; the “History Buff,” who is a serious history buff looking for half a year of historic letters; and the “Historian,” who is in love with history and knows up-front they want a full year of letters.
Sitver said he plans to work full time with his business following graduation in June. He hopes he’s making history as well. “We are one of the few businesses in the world who receive our customer support through the mail.”
April 24, 2019 at 06:28PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs