“Do I have any down here?” Liz Maguire asks, turning toward the open French doors in the background. “Oh, I do; I’ll show you. They’re usually everywhere in my house.”
Leaning off-camera—the internet is bridging the thousands of miles from Maguire’s home in Dublin—she produces a blue folder filled with transparent plastic sleeves. “This is how the letters are stored,” she says. “I have dozens of these.”
Inside them is the fuel for Flea Market Love Letters, the web project Maguire, CAS/BA ’16, began in 2017 with a shoebox of old mail. It’s now ballooned into a trove of nearly 2,000 letters, which continues to grow by the occasional handful or shoebox full of goods from picked-over tables of social salvage.
It’s an intriguing nook of the internet: Flea Market Love Letters is a hard-to-look-away-from, envelope-by-envelope unboxing of the dramas of strangers from a distant time, one that sometimes has Instagram followers bobbing in the letters’ emotional or stylistic wake. (“And suddenly [I’m] desperate for a love letter ,” one reader comments on a post. On another, someone writes: “Once again I am reminded how poor my penmanship is.”)
If the endeavor sounds intrusive, well, there’s no getting around that. But Maguire has carefully made a path through it.
“There’s just no easy way to be like, ‘You know what I’m going to do today? Read this person’s private letter,’” she says.
She’s accepted that this hobby is an inherently awkward one, but that it needn’t appear wanton or gossipy. Curated and shared with reverence and even a sense of service—“this is keeping that person’s memory alive in a [way],” she points out—Flea Market Love Letters feels more like the work of an archivist than a voyeur.
For Maguire, 29, the letter writers and their subjects are three-dimensional lives glimpsed through a pinhole—not nearly enough context to understand, never mind judge, them or their circumstances, and she takes pains to nudge readers toward the same deference.
These letters are “not written by Queen Elizabeth II,” she says. “They’re written by a woman whose mom sewed one of the cushions that was on the boat that took Elizabeth and [Prince] Philip off on their world tour,” she says. “They are an everyday history of an everyman’s life.”
“Dear Boy,” one letter begins. And after three sentences of what feels like small talk, Harriet, writing to her fiancé in the summer of 1914, turns up the temperature:
“Say Honey Boy, have you got that new gray suit yet? You know I was lying here in bed this morning thinking how you would look to me if I saw you coming up our front path and naturally that set me to thinking about whether you had a new suit yet or not. I just wish I could see you even in overalls.”
“They had some heat,” someone comments when Maguire posts the letter to Instagram.
“They were sexting before sexting was cool,” writes another.
Sometimes the letters carry a palpable weight of anguish, as in a letter from September 1942:
“When I stop to think of the love I would gladly die to hold, you love—I hate myself for ever dreaming that such a thing can be, I hate myself for ever thinking of wealth which seemed so absolutely necessary at the time. . . .
“Betty, I still want you now more than anything else on earth. What shall I do? What shall I do?”
But not all of Flea Market Love Letters’ relics are romantic. Often they’re simple morsels of tenderness between friends and family members: a mother asks whether the cookies she sent her soldier son arrived intact or broken; a husband jokingly assures his wife that he’s doing all the things she’d asked—“watering the fish, feeding the flowers.”
The letters offer a still-familiar mix of the minor ups and downs of a day. A woman in 1953 writes that she “just finished a pile of washing as big as the Eiffel Tower,” and laments an ongoing stretch of bad weather. “It’s murder when it rains trying to keep the kids amused at home they have TV, that sort of takes up their time—but here they almost drove me to drink (soda that is).”
Maguire, as a guide, “doesn’t get involved . . . she just presents these letters for what they are: [a] time capsule,” says Carole Lambert, an author in Owls Head, Maine, who’s become an avid follower. The letters are such that she’s able to read them with a sense of what the people might have looked and sounded like. “You’re pulled in because this is somebody’s private life and their private thoughts, and it’s such a privilege to go there.”
Maguire has shared some 700 letters—typically one per week posted on the project’s website and social media—and has more than a thousand in waiting. They’re still primarily harvested from US flea markets, especially from the Philadelphia suburbs where Maguire grew up, and where she and her parents still hunt treasure. (In Ireland flea markets tend to lean toward crafts, rather than antiques, she says.)
The collection is grouped, largely, into series—that is, strings of correspondence from or to the same person or people. A series can range from just a few letters to more than a hundred. There are a few one-off letters, too, like a note from 1901 excusing the absence of two girls due to a cousin being in town. Letters in the collection date as far back as 1876 and come as small as an envelope that’s barely tall enough for its stamp. Pressed flowers, illustrations, or bits of fabric are sometimes found inside; photos are typically long gone, having made their way to frames or albums, Maguire suspects.
“It’s a very personal relationship to make with a complete stranger [who] never had an intention for me to be involved. So you have to go about it gently, understanding [that] this is a special privilege to have access to these things.”
That means abiding a few principles: She doesn’t make money from this project (profits, like from the sale of mugs, shirts, and other merch, are donated to an organization that supports US service members, veterans, and their families); she would return letters to loved ones if asked (it hasn’t happened yet, though a few people have gotten in touch just to note their connection to a letter-writer); and she doesn’t censor the letters—though she has withheld just one, which she felt crossed a line in its specificity about a woman and how to find her.
And she unequivocally does not read unopened mail.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time the [seller] has read the letters and will tell you their version. So that first layer of intimacy is gone.” But when that’s not the case, she says, “I don’t want to be the first pair of eyes [on a letter beyond its author] . . . I’m okay being the third, the fourth, the fifth, putting them up for everybody else. But if it’s a sealed letter? That’s personal.”
The collection started with letters from 1926 between Raymond, a highway patrolman, and Marie, his “much younger girlfriend,” as Maguire puts it, which are among the many yet to be shared. Maguire spotted them in a shoebox at a flea market one summer during high school, and her mom thought her daughter’s intrigue was worth the $5 investment. And it was: Maguire doted on the pages that summer, reading them, spreading them over the dining room table to sort them into chronological order, then fitting them into plastic sleeves for safekeeping.
School and teenage life resumed. Then, after college in 2017, Maguire took the letters off a shelf and decided to begin a collection in earnest that she’d share online. The next year, she and her now husband moved from DC to Dublin for graduate school, and the letters came with her.
History had long been an interest of hers, and Maguire was no stranger to the musty aisles of flea markets, which she likens to “being let loose in a museum but you can touch everything.” Her mother is an antiques dealer, and her Irish-born father has an interest in old books on American history. “He’s one of the only people I know who will buy a book from 1816 and actually read it. He’ll be like, ‘Oh, wow, you should hear what he says about the pilgrims in here.’”
Although Flea Market Love Letters is an evenings and weekends project—she has a full-time job in marketing—there was a time during the thickest part of the pandemic when Maguire had accumulated 88 pen pals. Eighty-eight. Around half were actually sustained back-and-forths, and she still remains in touch with a few. Other strangers would reach out to see if they could mail her a note—with no need for her reply. It was just cathartic for them, Maguire says, a chance to drain their worries into a letter and then “seal it up and send it away.”
Then, for the entirety of 2021, Maguire made monthly offers via Twitter to send birthday cards to anyone (“just to remind people through letters that they matter,” she says), and ended up mailing more than a hundred.
“There were days where I was getting letters from people [and thought], ‘Did I give them my address?’ And my husband would be like, ‘So many people know where we live.’”
When her own birthday came around that year, foreseeing a potential deluge, she made an appeal for anyone planning to send her a card to instead donate to the UK-based letter-writing charity From Me to You, which sends letters as anonymous pick-me-ups to people with cancer, and also hosts letter-writing workshops. That effort raised more than $1,000.
Outside all of this, Maguire regularly reads and reviews books about letters; posts selfies with Ireland’s green, cylindrical mailboxes; and shares photos of the varied species of mail slots she finds adorning old doors.
“I’m the Letter Lady,” she says. “I’m 100 percent the Letter Lady.”
Reading other people’s old correspondence is, of course, something folks have been doing for centuries, says Naomi Baron, AU professor emerita of linguistics and a prominent scholar of how technology affects the ways people read, write, and speak. Researchers have long mined historical and personal insights from collections like England’s fifteenth-century Paston letters and Franz Kafka’s correspondence with his Czech translator, Milena Jesenská. For others, the activity was something of an ancestor to social media.
“This is a tradition,” Baron says, “and it’s a tradition that predates the novel.” It attracts us in the same way that a page-turner might: “You’re participating in someone else’s life, and that person could have been you.”
Scrolling Instagram or Facebook, watching reality TV shows, visiting Colonial Williamsburg, and probing Ancestry.com are all part of scratching a “psychological yearning—at least in the United States, but to some extent in other countries—to peer into how other people sort of like you are living their lives,” Baron says. It can make us feel connected to the world or help us momentarily escape our own place in it.
We’re also drawn to letters for their nostalgic and tactile allure: the patina and scars (or miraculous lack thereof) that tell a story of endurance, the slightest depression made by a pen on the paper, the texture of the pages, their weight, their smell. And there’s the chance for evocative prose that seems to choreograph a ballet of cursive letters.
But this kind of mail is in its sunset. In 2021, the US Postal Service handled some 50 billion pieces of first-class mail, which includes letters and cards—a staggering amount, but just half of the more than 103 billion pieces of first-class mail that were sent 20 years earlier, at its apex.
Even as the bulk of our writing is now digital, password protected, and stored by companies like Google and Meta, which could someday delete it or go out of business, Baron says Americans needn’t be concerned about a lack of personal communication for future scholars and citizen oglers to cherish.
“We don’t have that much commitment to the past,” and the timeframe for which these things matter “is getting shorter and shorter.” She points out: Who can remember what went viral last week? Who cares?
We’re in an age of digital excess—of digital photos, for example, she says: “There’s just too much to go through, so you don’t look at it”—even as younger generations, in particular, are accumulating fewer physical objects in favor of experiences.
Maguire is also unconcerned that we’re leaving behind seemingly little with the tangibility and allure of old letters. She loves letters for the ephemeral reasons that anyone is attracted to anything. (“Why do I keep these letters but I throw out my own bills?” she asks.) And she contends that they’re not going away, they’re changing and outgrowing the confines of pen and paper. “A lot of people say that Instagram is the digital postcard—that’s an evolution—and email is the digital letter. They’re still around us, they’re just evolved and more accessible.”
The idea of Flea Market Love Letters “has always been that letters build community,” she says.
They’re a means, not an end.
On the morning after her wedding last summer, the first gift Maguire and her husband reached for was the largest box. Seeing what was inside, she began to cry. It was a binder with hundreds of her great-grandfather’s letters from 1944–45, while he was in the military. She wasn’t aware that they existed.
“I’m used to all of the platitudes. I’m used to all the, ‘Oh, honey bunches, I wish I could squeeze you.’ But when it is your great-grandfather,” Maguire stops and laughs. “I was reading with my mom, and I was like, ‘Ugghhh.’ My mom was like, ‘Don’t make that noise, he built our family.’”
A collection of such personal letters from her own family hasn’t changed her approach or perspective on Flea Market Love Letters, however. It affirmed “the universality of it.”
Some of what she’s read in her great-grandfather’s war letters are the feelings and experiences that she’s seen a dozen times in the letters of others, just as the feelings and experiences of a great-granddaughter looking backward, looking outward into the world for connection, is a shared experience too.