While preparing props to use in a World War I-themed performance piece, I found on eBay a stash of twenty letters for a very reasonable price. I thought they’d be the perfect thing for stage dressing, and also to get an idea of the penmanship of the era since I was going to be hand-writing the letters I’d actually be reading from in the performance.
The seller on eBay hadn’t indexed or even read the letters. It turns out I had purchased a series of 17 letters, all written by one Harold Lampshire, a sailor serving on the U.S.S. Unalga, to his mother, Mrs. Louise Lampshire of Los Angeles, California. The letters were written between March and December of 1918. There were also two letters Harold wrote to his mother in the 1930s and one from his father to his mother from 1908.
As I read through the Lampshire letters, I was taken by the easy conversational tone the young sailor took when writing to his mother. The subject matter is certainly not as compelling as in the letters from Victor Chapman and Alan Seeger, who served in the French Foreign Legion from the start of the war. But they open a window onto a time when young men wrote long letters by hand to their mothers, sometimes daily.
Note: I apologize for these letters having disappeared for a while! The program I had previously used to design and maintain my website is no longer supported, so I had to recreate the entire site. I’ll be adding the rest of the Lampshire Letters over the coming days or weeks.
This first letter, dated March 17, 1918, introduces readers to Harold’s style of writing, with a detailed recounting of routine daily events–such as every item on the menu for Sunday dinner, and the fact that he considered combing his hair after his shower–reminds me of the letters my mother and her sisters wrote each other. He’s so enthusiastic about the food that in this one letter he tells his mother twice that he thinks he’ll get fat.
By March 25, Harold has come down with a case of measles but seems still in high spirits. Also, he looks forward to studying the Bluejacket’s Manual, the basic handbook for Navy personnel. As usual, food figures prominently in his day, and his illness means he won’t have to rise early.
April 2: Harold writes a short letter to let his mother know he has gotten over the measles and is out of quarantine.
April 11: This letter was begun on stationery Harold had presumably bought or been given; as he was running out of it, he writes on both sides of the sheets before switching mid-letter to Y.M.C.A. stationery, at which point he writes on only one side.
April 13: Once again writing on the Y.M.C.A. stationery, Harold asks his mother to send his woolen so[x]. He also asks his mother to put in a good word for a girl back home that he hopes to see in eight months or so. He closes the letter in a particularly exuberant mood.
May 6: Harold is anxiously awaiting a package his mother has sent him, but has received a box from Emma. I can’t help but wonder what his mother will think about the “two nice Los Angeles girls” he is seeing every night that he can!
May 10: A long, newsy letter written over several days. Harold observes that after he and his shipmates shoveled 250 tons of coal he “looked like a negro.” It was a different time, and I don’t know that we should read much into the statement. Harold is proud that he wasn’t troubled by the rough seas that had many of his shipmates sick.