Write that Letter Home, Part III: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence
By James R. Miller, Historian and Philatelic Genealogist
The National Postal Museum is pleased to share part three of a three-part blog series by historian and philatelic genealogist James R. Miller. A presenter at the National Postal Museum's Tenth Winton M. Blount Postal History Symposium, Miller is deeply engrossed in philatelic genealogy; that is, using letters, postcards, and covers to reveal family trees and other intricate, genealogical details. In "Write that Letter Home: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence," Miller illuminates the context - both personal and historical - of several WWI postcards and letters. More examples of how postal history and genealogy work together can be found on the author's philatelic genealogy website: Philgen.org.
Letters and postcards sent by United States military personnel during World War I are unique sources of information about the importance of tobacco for certain soldiers, seeing the world, and thinking of home. Each letter and postcard show details about military service that cannot be found elsewhere. Genealogical databases and online family trees help identify the sender and recipient and enable notification of their descendants. The smallest detail in a letter or postcard can be a treasure for a descendant learning about the life of someone in their family.
Many soldiers smoked. Cigarette use increased during the war and began what one author calls “the cigarette century.”1 At first, soldiers purchased tobacco in Europe and families and fellow soldiers sent or gave tobacco to soldiers. Later, donations were organized into tobacco funds. Ultimately, governments issued tobacco rations.
Thomas D. Wilson wrote to his sister Emma (Wilson) Lee in Greenville, South Carolina “I … got the cigeretts and Belive me I Sure did smoke … and if you wont [want] to send me any more Smoking I thank I will get them all wright” (Figure 1). A genealogist commented “That was awesome! When I read things like that, I feel more connected to the people.”2
“Our Boys in France Tobacco Fund” was one effort to send tobacco to soldiers.3 Henry B. Refo, corporal, 117th Engineers, sent his “sincere appreciation” to Nola Fern Roberts in Vallejo, California. He wrote “They always come in the nick of time just when we need them most.” (Figure 2a-b)
General Pershing clearly stated tobacco’s importance. “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco, as much as bullets.”4 On 23 May 1918, the New York Times reported “A wave of joy swept through the American army today when it was announced throughout our forces that henceforth the War Department would issue tobacco rations.”5
Seeing the World
Apart from military service, the war enabled Americans to see the world, especially after the November 1918 armistice. James N. Blake, corporal, 363rd Infantry, sent a postcard 4 February 1919 to his father James in Los Angeles showing Saint-Malo, France.6 Blake wrote “I am on a 7 day leave in this town. All expenses paid by U.S. Sure having a good time.” (Figure 3a-b)
Bernard “Barney” Berssenbrugge, lieutenant, 310th Engineers, sent a postcard to his sister Wilhelmina in Milwaukee from Orleans, France showing a Joan-of-Arc statue.7 He wrote “Stay here tonight. Go to Blois tomorrow.” (Figure 4a-b)
Thinking of Home
Harry D. Kellogg, wagoner, 310th Engineers wrote 14 June 1919 from Brest, France to his brother Arthur in Howell, Michigan. “[W]e are at the coast now but don’t know when we leave. We are close enough to hear the big boats whistel once in a while.” The ship sounds apparently reassured Kellogg that he would soon be going home. Kellogg departed Brest three days later, on 17 June 1919 aboard U.S.S. Mobile.8 (Figure 5)
Lilla S. Farris, Army Nursing Corps, sent a post-war image of Metz and encouraged her nephew, Richard Dobbin in Rockland, Maine, to “Help grammy all you possibly can until I get there.” 9 (Figure 6a-b)
Alphons Kloeppner, private, 53rd Infantry, “Comp[osite] Reg[imen]t” sent a YMCA “America Greets You” postcard to his mother in Clearwater, Minnesota when he arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey 8 September 1919 aboard U.S.S. Leviathan that had departed Brest, France 1 September 1919 (Figure 7a-b).10
Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century, The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 52.
10 July 2018 email from Trish Shockley Dycus.
Cassandra Tate, Cigarette Wars, The Triumph of “The Little White Slaver” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 82.
Brandt, Cigarette Century, 51.
Edwin L. James, “Tobacco Ration for Our Men,” New York Times, 23 May 1918, 1.
Army transport lists, Kentuckian, departed St-Nazaire 20 March 1919, Fold3, National Archives and Records Administration [NARA].
“Netherlands, Birth Index, 1784-1917,” Bernard Joseph Benjamin Berssenbrugge and Wilhelmina Maria Friderica Berssenbrugge, Ancestry, Stadsarchief (city archive) Rotterdam.
Army transport lists, Mobile, departed Brest 17 June 1919, Fold3, NARA.
1900 U.S. census, Warren, Knox County, Me., ED 158, p. 4B, Ancestry, NARA. Roscoe Dobbin-Henrietta Farris, 1909, “Maine Marriage Records, 1713-1922,” Ancestry, Maine State Archives. 1920 U.S. census, Rockland, ward 1, Knox County, Me., Enumeration District 68, p. 1A, Ancestry, NARA.
Army transport lists, Leviathan, departed Brest 1 September 1919, Fold3, NARA.