The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World

The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World

The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World

The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World

Synopsis

By the early eighteenth century, the rapid expansion of the British empire had created a technological problem: communication and networking became increasingly vital yet harder to maintain. As colonial possessions and populations grew and more individuals moved around the globe, Britons both at home and abroad required a constant and reliable means of communication to conduct business, plumb intellectual concerns, discuss family matters, run distant estates, and exchange news. As face-to-face communication became more intermittent, men and women across the early modern British world relied on letters.

In The Opened Letter, historian Lindsay O'Neill explores the importance and impact of networking via letter-writing among the members of the elite from England, Ireland, and the colonies. Combining extensive archival research with social network digital technology, The Opened Letter captures the dynamic associations that created a vibrant, expansive, and elaborate web of communication. The author examined more than 10,000 letters produced by such figures as Virginia planters William Byrd I and his son William Byrd II; the Anglo-Irish nobleman John Perceval; the newly minted Duke of Chandos, James Brydges, and his wife Cassandra Brydges; and Sir Hans Sloane, the president of the Royal Society, and his colleague Peter Collinson. She also mined letters from the likes of Nicholas Blundell, a Catholic member of the Lancashire gentry, and James Eliot, a London merchant and ardent Quaker. The Opened Letter reassembles and presents the vital individual and interlocking epistolary webs constructed by disparate groups of letter writers. These early social networks illuminate the structural, social, and geographic workings of the British world as the nation was becoming a dominant global power.

Excerpt

The letters Peter Collinson received spoke to him. For this London merchant and ardent botanist, letters held more than inked words on a page. They contained the voices of his friends and acquaintances, and when he cracked open the seal of a letter, they escaped and filled the room. As he wrote to his fellow botanist John Bartram in Pennsylvania in 1762, “I am here all alone and yet I have the Company of my Friends with Mee. This will be no paradox when I tell thee on the Table lays their Speaking Letters in that Silent Language which Conveys their most intimate thoughts to my Mind.” Simply by dipping his quill into his ink, Collinson joined a conversation. He might address Bartram first, but his letter responded to and created other conversations. He urged Bartram to go read the letter he had sent to Benjamin Franklin about mysterious animal skeletons found near the Ohio River and he passed on thanks to Bartram’s wife for her postscript. While he may have not realized it at the time, Collinson was doing more than carrying on an extended conversation with his friends and associates. He, and the scores of letter writers like him, used their pens to maintain and extend the social networks that were increasingly tying together the wider British world.

The letters Collinson read and penned with such joy reveal how one eager correspondent used his letters to maintain relationships with individuals across the wider British world. But he was only one man, and the meaning of his epistolary efforts only coand women across the early modern British world. By the eighteenth century, members of the elite from England, Ireland, Scotland, and the colonies needed letters like never before. They used them to conduct business, plumb intellectual concerns, discuss family matters, run distant estates, exchange news, and ask for advancement. Changing social, economic, and geographic circumstances made face-to-face . . .

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