The State Historical Society of Missouri is working to digitize the thousands of records in their archives. Along the way, staff has rediscovered many significant documents, including one written by an American founding father.
State Historical Society Manuscript Specialist Elizabeth Engel has experience working with centuries-old documents. When she discovered a letter while going through the Society’s archives, it wasn’t the paper’s 1789 date that surprised her, it was the author. The letter was written by Benjamin Franklin to George Washington only seven months before Franklin’s death. Engel initially suspected the letter was an original, but discovered it was a copy Franklin created by pressing a thin sheet of paper on the wet ink of the original.
"I started digging a little bit and it turns out it’s a letterpress copy and so it was actually created by Franklin probably within hours or up to a couple days of when he actually wrote the original letter to Washington," Engel says.
Sen. Stuart Symington donated the letter to the society in 1979 where it fell out of memory as it sat in the archive for more than 30 years. Engel says none of the State Historical Society’s current staff members knew of the letter before she rediscovered it in July, but it has already become a popular item.
Engel says the high historical importance of both Franklin and Washington made the letterpress copy a favorite among schools and tour groups. Senior Manuscript Specialist Laura Jolley says the document doesn’t have any particular ties to Missouri, but says it gives insight to lives of early American political figures.
"To have just a little bit of that at the society as an example of what they were doing and what they were thinking I think is pretty special," Jolley says.