A Formal Introduction

Letter from John Gardiner to Gov. John Hancock, 1792 (MS0119/DC921.1792)

For just a few more weeks, the archives exhibit case in the Old State House will feature a display of letters of introduction. Nowadays, an introduction is as easy as sending a Facebook friend request or a LinkedIn connection but in the 1700s and 1800s, the process was a bit more formal, at least for the upper class. Letters of introduction were considered the proper etiquette for initiating a social interaction.

The hierarchy of class was apparent in many aspects of colonial and early American life, and letters of introduction were no exception. The person requesting the introduction was typically of lower social status than the person writing it. The person receiving the letter would also be of a higher social status than the person desiring the introduction.  Letters of introduction were ultimately a formal and polite way for those from a lower class to make a connection to those with higher social standing.

Letters of introduction were especially useful for those traveling abroad, and two of the letters on display in the Old State House are introductions for individuals traveling from Boston to England. The other letter, from 1792, is a request from John Gardiner of Georgetown, asking Governor John Hancock to write a letter for a neighbor, Mr. William Lee, also of Georgetown, who was traveling to Barbados and needed to meet with the governor. It was expected that a stranger coming to Barbados should be introduced and pay their respects, so Hancock’s letter would have been necessary to facilitate that meeting. In the letter, Gardiner provides a bit of a character reference for Lee, writing that he is “perfectly well known to me, an honester [sic] man lives not in Georgetown or in this state. He married a daughter of the late Judge McCobb, by whom he has several children. He is a native of England, but he has settled in Georgetown several years previous to the late war.” Gardiner’s language is deferential throughout the letter and he closes by sending his respectful compliments to Mrs. Hancock.

These three letters will be on display through the first week of April, so plan to stop by the Old State House to see them in person!