Dublin-based antiquarian Liz Maguire (28), who is originally from the US, has been collecting vintage love letters since she was a teenager and says expressions of love are constantly changing and evolving
“I bought my first vintage love letter at a flea market when I was a teenager. My mom gave me $20 to leave her alone while she went to look at her own stuff. I was well chuffed that I had this cash in my pocket but I spent it all in probably 15 minutes!
Afterwards I was looking around and I found a box of letters that were all yellow and folded over on each other. At this point I was strapped for cash because I had already spent my little allowance so I found my mom and I pulled her over and I was like, ‘This is so cool! Can I have another $5?’
Looking back, I think she saw it as a great summer project because I was always bookish and into history. Plus, my mom is a collector herself. She deals in vintage jewellery so I grew up at her elbow at flea market tables. She has this remarkable talent where she can pick up a brooch and say, ‘Oh, that’s Depression era’, and I’m like, ‘How can you tell that?’ She’s like a savant for it.
As I grew up and added to my collection, I got better at sourcing and dating letters. The easiest way to identify them is by the postmark — that circular stamp tells you where it was dispatched and when.
But sometimes you can get a sense from the content of the letter itself. During World War I, for example, there was a lot more suggestion in the writing, with phrases like, ‘Oh my darling, I wish I could hug and hold you’ or ‘I wish I could be in your arms’, whereas during World War II it might be a littler soppier, bolder and read-between-the-lines.
There were GIs getting letters from girls they maybe only met once and she’s describing, for maybe four pages, her summer bathing suit, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, that definitely wouldn’t have happened in 1914…’
I’m a big softie for the 1920s to the 1930s because I think that’s the most interesting period of history. You’re between the Great War and you’re about to enter the Great Depression and World War II. It’s a fascinating 10 to 15 years. I don’t really have any letters in the collection from after the 1950s because I don’t think people are as ready to part with those as much as they are the earlier stuff.
Collecting love letters is a weird hobby because a lot of people feel like it’s very voyeuristic. And then, at a certain point, you kind of have to make a decision about how you’ll approach it. It comes down to having the resources to source the letters and coming to terms with how you want to present the collection.
For me, that meant starting Flea Market Love Letters in 2017. I shared my archive online and it’s very important to me that people know these are real people’s stories and that I don’t profit off the project. I’m basically the keeper of the letters.
I was living in Washington DC when I started Flea Market Love Letters but then, the following year, I came to Dublin to do a Masters in Marketing in Trinity. I studied English in Trinity in 2014 and I always wanted to return. Getting the opportunity to come back, with my partner, was so exciting — even though we’ve been inside for most of it!
Most of the letters in my collection are from the US but I’ve been looking for more Irish letters to add to it. I’ve found a few postcards and single sheet letters in Blackrock Market. Needful Things on Aungier Street also has a few postcards so I love to go and poke around in there, too.
Old Irish love letters are very tender but there’s a little bit of reservedness and they’re not as effusive as an America postcard or letter might be. And I run into this myself, being an American in Ireland. I have a real tendency to overshare so I don’t think it’s a generational thing. I think it’s just a cultural difference, which you can definitely see in the letters.
Is there a letter that I find especially romantic? Well, I just posted a series of letters between a young couple, Harriet and George, getting married in 1914, and they’re particularly poignant for me because I’m planning my wedding too. She writes things like, ‘Please remember to bring the yellow flowers!’ In another letter, five days before their wedding, she said to George: ‘Can you imagine that in a week there won’t be two happier people than us’.
When there’s a collection of letters between two people, I publish them in instalments two or three times a week. There was a series a few years ago that our readers followed as if it was a soap opera! I was given the first six letters as a gift and the seller said, ‘If you like these we can work out a deal for the rest’.
I read the first six and they punched me in the gut. They were from World War II and it was a young GI named Jack writing to his girlfriend, Betty. It was like The Notebook and it was actually a moment when I thought, ‘OK, this is not just an Instagram page anymore’.
The seller told me that it was believed that Jack died in World War II and that a lot of the letters in that collection had come back unopened. So I was really careful about how I presented that series because there was a third person and a lot of people got it into their minds that this was a love triangle. There were a lot of comments saying, ‘I hope Betty chooses this person or that person’ and it was just so hard for me because I knew the whole time what’d really happened.
If someone makes a specific comment about a person, I’ll always be quick to respond, saying, ‘Let’s just be mindful that these are real people’. Because to me, they are real people — I’ve handled their letters and I’ve had a very intimate relationship with their words.
There was another series last year that featured a husband and wife in the 1930s. They never talked about the issue but she was in a hospital and they were writing back and forth. When I posted a letter from the series on Instagram, someone commentated saying, ‘She was my mom’s friend — it’s really great to see her handwriting and to remember her. Thanks for sharing’. And I just melted down because that’s the response you want when someone finds an entire archive of someone’s letters.
We have shared 500 letters so far on Flea Market Love Letters and we’ve been through both World Wars, the Great Depression and the Roaring Twenties. There’s so many different pockets of history but what links them together is that these aren’t just husbands and wives or girlfriends and boyfriends writing to each other — it’s just love in the broadest form.
And it makes you realise the importance of writing and preserving letters. I would love to leave future generations after me a big stack of yellowed loose-leaf letters but I haven’t got there yet! I keep everything but there is very little I’m leaving, which is something I could work on.
In saying that, I think the biggest regret you can have when writing a letter or a Valentine’s card is reading it back and wishing you had said more.
So just sit down, put it out there and seal the envelope. If you read it again, you’re more than likely going to second-guess it. And often, the best thing is what comes off the top of your head.”