Museum Classroom: 19th Century Letter Writing

Lesson: 19th Century Letter Writing
Topic: The Welland Canals
Sub-Topic: The History of Communication
Grade: 6-8

Activity: Letter from William Hamilton Merritt

Materials Required:

  • Pencil
  • Eraser

Materials Provided:

  • Letter from William Hamilton Merritt
  • Letter Writing graphic organizer

Pre-Lesson: Discussion of Communication
Discuss how the world communicates to each other from a distance. What do we use today to send messages to one another? Social media, email, instant messaging, video and phone calls, texts, mail. Discuss how people communicated before the modern technology we use today. People communicated through letters sent to them through the mail. The Welland Canal was important to shipping, but it was also for long distance communications. Many ships contributed to the postal service by carrying letters from one end of the Great Lakes to the other. How long might communication have taken before technology and modern transportation? Letters would travel by horse or stage coach, on trains, and on ships. How might slow communication impact students’ lives today, if internet or phone service was unavailable?

For this activity, print off both William Hamilton Merritt Letter – Cursive Writing and William Hamilton Merritt Letter – Transcribed. With a partner or family member, read copies of the historical letter from William Hamilton Merritt. Use the transcribed copy to assist you with words that you are not familiar with. What is different from the way we write letters and communicate today? Consider the language, the writing and the content. 

Note: if you do not have access to a printer, STCM has included a number of steps to allow you to complete this activity virtually.
1. Download both the William Hamilton Merritt Letter – cursive and William Hamilton Merritt Letter – transcribed on a preferred electronic device (i.e. desktop, lap top, iPad, tablet, etc.)
2. Read over the William Hamilton Merritt Letter – cursive. Use the William Hamilton Merritt Letter – transcribed if you come across unfamiliar words or to assist you with the cursive written letter. If you have more than one electronic device, download one letter on each device for easy viewing.
3. Continue on with the rest of the pre-lesson and lesson as planned.

Individually or with a partner or family member, compose a 19th century style letter to a fictional family member, business partner, employee or friend describing their life in St. Catharines between the First and Third Canals, or traveling through the Welland Canal on a journey. Facts about the Welland Canal and life in St. Catharines should reflect information from previous lessons, as well as resource books and websites. Use the Letter Writing graphic organizer to organize your thoughts and develop a character. The final product should include all formal letter formatting, including an address, name, date, location, and greeting.

Wrap-up Discussion
With a partner or family member, discuss the challenges they came across while writing your letter. Why might the language be different from how we currently communicate?

Individually, reflect on the challenges you came across while writing your letter. Why might the language be different form how we currently communicate?

Translate the 19th century letter from William Hamilton Merritt into a modern email, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram Post. Incorporate a photo for your post. Will you choose one of William Hamilton Merritt or a more modern photo that relates to the letter? Get creative!


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