Eleanor Roosevelt’s Illustrated Envelope
As a child, my mother, Suzanne Schneider, loved to receive letters. Not one for ordinary pen pals, she exchanged notes with the likes of Harry Truman, Carl Sandburg, and Leonard Bernstein. Starting around age 11, she wrote to political leaders, writers, and other luminaries. Inspired by her father’s collection of first-day covers, or envelopes with stamps postmarked on their first day of issue, she created her own personalized “covers” for each person whose autograph she hoped to collect, thereby combining two popular hobbies—stamp and autograph collecting. She would illustrate an envelope with drawings representing the recipient’s life—books, the presidential seal, a state flag—and request that the recipient sign the envelope and mail it back to her. Many did; for others, such as Queen Elizabeth II, assistants wrote polite letters back, explaining that they received too many autograph requests to comply.
I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered her collection. As a budding historian even then, I was enthralled by this bridge to the past. I loved, under my mother’s watchful eye, to browse carefully through the collection, asking her what it was like to receive letters from former presidents and world leaders. I also found her illustrations revealing. Each cover taught me about the person whose autograph she had sought, and what she had considered compelling about each person at the time.
We both consider the gem of her collection to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s cover. The former First Lady signed the envelope and had it postmarked from Hyde Park, New York, the Roosevelts’ hometown, in July 1961, less than 18 months before she died. Her shaky signature suggests that she found it challenging to write as easily as she once did; I imagine that at one time her fingers must have flown across the page or typewriter to produce news columns and letters.
My young mother illustrated the envelope with iconography that represented Roosevelt’s work as an author and philanthropist: the March of Dimes, Roosevelt’s memoir, and her “My Day” news columns. When selecting illustrations for her envelopes, my mother would often ask her parents about the individual’s achievements. The cover, then, offers some insight into how my grandparents viewed Roosevelt—not simply as a former First Lady, but as an independent thinker and leader in her own right.
The envelope and Roosevelt’s legacy read differently to me today than they did when I first encountered them as a child. Then, I knew that Roosevelt had served ably as First Lady during a tumultuous time in American history. The cover inspired me to delve further into her career and learn more about Roosevelt’s writings and public service. Now, I appreciate more than ever her work as a diplomat, leader, and activist.
Watching my two-year-old daughter pull board books off our shelves, I wonder whether my mother’s collection will hold the same power for her, and if the Roosevelt envelope will interest her. Though the cover depicts only a sliver of Roosevelt’s achievements, to me it represents the fullness of her life and the perils of narrowly defining one person’s legacy. When my mother saved Roosevelt’s signature on an envelope decorated with symbols of her life outside of the White House, she created a family treasure that commemorates Eleanor Roosevelt for all her accomplishments.
Alexandra F. Levy is the AHA’s web and social media coordinator. She tweets @AlexandraFL21.
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