Write a Letter Home
demonstrationactivity exercisesuggested grade levels: K- 6

view Idaho achievement standards for this lesson

Most of the people immigrating to Idaho in the late 1800s traveled a long way from home. There were no telephones, radios or email in their day. Staying in touch was done by sending letters. This was hard to do. Many people could not read and write, paper was scarce, ink had to be made by hand, pens consisted of sharpened quills (such as turkey feathers) that were dipped in the ink pot, then used to scratch words onto the paper. This was a messy way to write, so nice penmanship was considered to be a genuine accomplishment. Those who could not read or write asked those who could to write their letters for them. It took a long time for mail to reach its destination, even longer for a reply to come. Mail was carried by hand, sometimes on horseback, later by stagecoach or steamship. It then had to cross either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans via ship. Receiving a letter in Idaho Territory was an exciting event, and was cherished by those who did. In this activity, pretend you are a settler in Idaho Territory in 1880. Chose a name for yourself and an occupation. Make up a family if appropriate, then write a letter home, pioneer-style!

heavy cotton or linen paper, or construction paper colored wax candle newspaper saucepan
feather quill (available at a craft shop) small jelly jar paper clip stove
cotton cloth for blotting walnut shells vinegar salt

1. Mash the walnut shells and place them in a saucepan with water. Have an adult help you boil them down slowly on the stove until the water is dark brown. Strain out the shells, then add a 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of vinegar to the boiling ink (this will set the color). Turn of the stove and let the ink cool completely. When it is cool pour a small amount in the jelly jar.
2. Cover you work area with newspaper. Dip the quill into the ink in the jar and use it to write your letter on the paper. Use the cloth to wipe up drips and spills. It will take a little practice t get used to writing this way. TIP: you may want to wear rubber gloves, or your fingers will be stained with the walnut.
3. When you are done allow the ink on your letter to dry completely. There were no envelopes then, so the paper was folded to make one. Use the picture as a guide, and fold your letter into a pioneer envelope.
4. These envelopes were sealed with melted wax from a candle ("sealing wax"). Sometimes a family had a special seal that they pressed into the wax to personalize their mail. Broken seals indicated that someone had read your mail! Use a paper clip and shape it into your own unique seal design. Then ask an adult to help you light a candle a drip melted wax to seal your letter. When the wax is almost dry press your seal into it.
5. Now address your letter and it is ready to send!

Related Lesson Topics:
Geography: Geography Topics

Lesson Plan provided by Vita Taube, 2000
Idaho Achievement Standards (as of 7/2001) met by completing this activity: