My baby, she wrote me a letter

English: Postal card mailed from Washington, D...
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When was the last time you wrote — (yes, by hand, using a pen) — a letter or note on a piece of paper, let alone chose a lovely card or piece of quality stationery? Foolscap, notebook pages, the back of a receipt or a Post-It note do not count!

Did you put a stamp on it and mail it to someone: a business associate, a former professor or mentor, your sweetie or mom or nephew or former college room-mate?

When was the last time you received a card or letter and ripped open that paper envelope, wondering who had been so thoughtfully old-school to choose it, write it, buy a stamp, find your mailing address and, in time for an occasion, send it to you?

Here’s a recent op-ed in The Guardian making the same argument in favor of paper-based communication:

A letter is a letter no matter whether it lands on the doormat or pings into your electronic inbox.

Actually, though, there is a difference and it is one that worries historians like myself who spend their days combing the correspondence of ordinary people written 150 years ago. The protocols that govern letter-writing mean that even the simplest of communications come packed with extra bits of information that never make it into an email. “A … letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay,” Saul Bellow once wrote – and while most peoples’ communications don’t quite match up to these exacting standards, they do strive to do more than simply arrange where to meet tonight, FYI, or chortle over last night’s debauch down the pub, WTF. Even the most listless letter-writer generally includes a bit about how they are physically and emotionally, a snapshot of their recent activities, a nod towards future holiday plans and a final comment on the state of the nation.

To a historian this stuff is gold dust. For buried away in the interstices of the most apparently banal note you will find all sorts of data, not just about how people lived, loved, ate and dressed a century ago, but – and this is the important bit – what they thought and felt about it all. Letters are a prompt to reflection and what cultural critics call “self-fashioning”. Put bluntly, we get to know who we are and what we think by writing about it to other people.

I recently had major surgery and cannot adequately describe the pleasure, comfort and moral support I got from the many cards and notes I received, whether slid beneath my apartment door by neighbors, sent from old pals in Canada or mailed by members of our church.

(I loved getting e-cards, too.)

But, years from now, when I sort through my papers — literally — these pretty, physical, time-specific memories will fill my hands: Valentine’s, birthdays, weddings, condolence, congratulations.

Here’s a link to 30 gorgeous modern thank-you notes, from one of my favorite daily blogs, Design Milk.

Especially at times of sorrow and stress, a thoughtful, personal note on lovely paper is an air-borne hug.

Here’s a great story from NBC Nightly News about why sending cards matters so much.

And a year-old blog devoted to saving the use of snail mail.

Writing a novel? Here’s a fascinating argument by one writer why writing letters is so beneficial to writers of fiction.

Mail one today!

7 thoughts on “My baby, she wrote me a letter

  1. free penny press

    I actually still write letter and send cards. It was something my Mom & I did every week and I have always loved getting mail. One must send to receive.
    Nothing finer than going to that mailbox (the one at the end of the yard not on the laptop) and finding an envelope full of written words..

  2. So true! Almost as good as getting a parcel.

    My mom and I used to have a lively correspondence years back. I kept some of those typewritten letters suspecting they would end long before she died, as they have.

  3. I have just started writing letters again – and it’s to a prisoner on death row as part of the Death Row Support Project. I have committed to a year of writing to this person. My sister, who told me about the project, is doing the same. I blogged about why…

  4. There is a tremendous value to the written letter – a personal touch to a written note – even a word or two – that cannot be replicated by evanescent electrons. And, in the general sense, there is the point that humans are tactile; we like to hold things. The memory of handling old cards, old letters we’ve received is so much more intense with paper.

    For me as a historian there’s also a tremendous buzz about reading an old letter. The oldest letter I ever held was written by Elizabeth I, and I had a great sense of connection to think that this same piece of paper was held by that monarch, way back when. Routinely I’ll handle documents used by New Zealand’s historical figures.

    I do wonder about the loss of this resource in the e-age. Electronic documents, so far, do not survive long – formats change, hardware fails. They have to be repeatedly copied into new media. Paper – if well kept – can last for centuries in original form. Food for thought.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Matthew Wright

    1. The coincidence is too funny — I am ploughing through Anne Somerset’s biography of Elizabeth I, someone about whom I am intensely curious. Where was this letter? Unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine people from history as people (not just rulers or politicians or distant relatives) but seeing their handwriting is amazing.

      My first book relied heavily, in one chapter, on the journals of women pioneers in the U.S., female homesteaders. I wonder how much of this century will be available to future historians in paper form? I think about this a lot, too. As a journalist, I’ve always been very aware, and proud of, my role as writing “the first draft of history” and try to include a lot of color, detail and context when I can.

  5. I have been writing letters to a good friend since we were 17. We live on the opposite ends of Australia and we SMS and chat all the time. Letter writing though, It’s the next best thing to hanging out with each other, despite the lag.

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