“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.” – Anatole Broyard
I miss letter writing. Actually, what I miss is receiving letters. The thrill of opening the letter box and finding a missive, addressed to me from a loved one, is now just a beautiful memory, a lost joy. As a child and young adolescent I took great delight in this now old-fashioned communique. My grandmother and I, separated by distance, closed the miles between us through our regular handwritten correspondence. This was a time when our household did not have a telephone and weekend phone calls were made at the local phone box. Our family of five crammed in the booth, each vying for their two minutes to hear our grandparents soothing and loving tones before the coins ran out. This was a time before email and Skype and Snapchat.
Our letters did not contain acronyms, shortened or abbreviated phrases as is common with forms of messaging today. My handwriting, now decrepit through lack of use, was easy to read, the pen felt good in my hand as it glided across pretty stationery, of which I had a great stash. Pretty stationery of matching letter paper and envelopes was always a gratefully received gift.
I’ve read a great many books and seem some film recently where letter writing was a significant means of communication, informing confidantes of discoveries, expeditions and life in general. Our understating of the past has been gleaned from lengthy and detailed letters. In fact, the history of the letter weaves a beautiful passage through the ages.
The material on which and with which letters were written has progressed from the use of tree leaves and folded bark, to papyrus, cotton and paper. Writing implements from bone, reeds and quills to modern-day pen offer a fascinating study. For a long time letters were folded and sealed by wax, no lick and go glue strips on envelopes then. In fact, no envelopes at all. The stamped letter in an envelope came into being much later, in the reign of Queen Victoria in 1840. Postal services too have seen many changes through the ages. Modern cities and advancements in courier services have improved the lag between writing and delivery of the letter. No longer are letters passed on by footed couriers, chariot or coach.
In all of this fascinating history the single most intriguing point for me is where the first letter originated. That, I guess we will never know, though by luck and good fortune we can trace the origin of the first recorded handwritten letter. It was crafted by a woman, a Queen from Persia no less. This small fact teased the recesses of my mind; I had to research who Queen Atossa was, who wrote this letter around 500 BC. What was she like? What prompted her to write? What was the content of her letter and to whom did she send it?
Letter writing might be old-fashioned now, though I notice researchers are encouraging the act of putting pen to paper and citing the benefits to both writer and receiver. Letters communicate an emotional closeness that is often lost in email, texts and the like. The thrill of receiving a letter is beyond words. It lifts the spirits and lightens the mood. We have to concentrate, be deliberate and mindful when writing a letter. No backspacing or deleting, no automatic spell check or thesaurus. We are forced to preserve or improve our long-lost art of handwriting. Letters are a lovely way to enclose little mementos, heightening the personal connection.
On several occasions I have written little messages and tucked them into my husband’s luggage when he travels away or in his lunchbox to discover and remind him of how much he is loved. A handwritten and posted message expressing thanks for a dinner invitation or thoughtful gesture is so much nicer than a text. Letters leave a legacy. My much-loved bundle of letters between my grandmother and I tell a story spanning years that may, at some point in the future, be of interest to our descendants adding some depth and form to the lives of otherwise intangible names on the family tree.
Here’s to bringing back the waning art of handwritten letters.
With kind regards,