Long before twitter, face book, and email that flies through the Ethernet in seconds, before cell phones and texting, people communicated by writing long, newsy letters to one another. Back then (which really is only about 30 years ago), before all today’s technology, letters were the only way to communicate cheaply with family and friends far away. Pricey, long distance telephone calls cost by the minute and a stamp was only 5 cents. Before the telephone, communication choices were letters or the telegraph, which was also expensive. If you do the math a letter was the obvious choice.
Letter writing was an important ritual. You gathered your writing supplies, sat down at the desk or kitchen table with a cup of tea or coffee, and took the time to think about what you wanted to say, carefully crafting the words to make sure they meant exactly what you intended. If you had the time and the extra paper, you even wrote a first draft, because you didn’t want to send a scratched-out letter home to Mom, a pen pal, a boyfriend or husband, or a thank you note that looked like you hadn’t taken any care in the writing.
I remember being hundreds of miles from my family, too poor to afford a long distance call, unless someone was dying, and so homesick that it physically hurt at times. The weekly letters I received from my mother and my mother-in-law were life lines to me that I anxiously awaited. My mother-in-law always gave me a run-down of her weekly life, their dinners out, where they ate, what she ordered and a cook’s critique of the meal. When she started to run out of room she’d inch the words around the sides of the page until every blank space was covered. She often included news clips from the hometown paper she thought we’d enjoy. My mother kept me in touch with newsy bits of chitchat about my sisters and friends and family at my old church. I looked forward to those letters. I can’t tell you exactly what their content was, but I can say that the memory of receiving them has stayed with me over the years. The lovely loops on my mother-in-law’s handwriting and the chicken scratch letters of my mother’s letters were comforting, and they connected me to home and hearth and let me know I was loved.
And speaking of love …who among us doesn’t have a love letter or two we’ve kept through the years? I know I do—and that includes all those special cards and notes written by my daughter.
One of the most unique collection of love letters I’ve seen has been a collection of love letters written during World War II and highlighted online in Reminisce Magazine. The author of the letters not only wrote letters, but illustrated her envelopes as well, providing a unique look at the historical era of the time and an interesting mail call for all the soldiers in her beloved’s unit.
Love letters are some of the most celebrated letters and come from all walks of life: rich, poor, and presidential. If you want a glimpse into some Presidential love letters consider checking out the presidential libraries or do an internet search on your favorite president to see what a softie he was when it came to love. One of the most prolific writers of love letters was John Adams. Between the years of 1762 and 1801, John and Abigail Adams exchanged over 1,100 letters during their courtship and James’ political career. That’s over 28 letters a year or almost a letter every two weeks. Considering how long it took for letters to arrive back then, that’s quite a feat!
Letters provide us with a unique look into history too. I’m currently reading Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. The letters, written beginning in 1909 to Elinore’s former employer, chronicle Elinore’s story of her new life near the Forest Reserve of Utah and provide a true-to-life glimpse of living as a homesteader in the early 1900s. I use my Christmas letters as a type of historical ledger for our family’s important events, chronicling vacations, birthdays, weddings, promotions, deaths, and any other event that I think is worth remembering. The Christmas letters may not fall into the same historical category as presidential letters, or pioneer letters, but they will be important someday to my daughter or grandchildren as a peek into our lives.
The U.S. Postal Service named April National card and letter writing month to “help Americans to rediscover the timeless and very personal art of letter writing.” So this month, make a memory. Turn off your computer, ditch your email, your cell phone, and stop texting. Get out your best pen and stationary, practice your cursive writing, stamp out or create some personalized cards and reconnect with someone on a more intimate level. You just might be surprised at how much fun it can be.
Do you have any memories about letters you wrote or received? When was the last time you wrote a real letter, not a long email?