“Please, Mr. Postman, look and see;
Is there a letter in your bag for me?”
–Please Mr. Postman, The Marvelettes, 1961
Before there were DMs, IMs, texts, FaceTime, voicemail, phone calls, and even telegrams…there were letters. Letters are our window into history: we see them in museums, we read them and about them in history books, we watch them recreated in documentaries. How often do we actually write them these days? I’m not talking about postcards, holiday greetings, birthday cards: I mean, actual, hand-written letters in honest-to-goodness paragraphs?
When the stay-at-home orders were first issued, I started to find myself ordering a lot of stuff online. Not just my usual groceries and dry goods, but a lot of stuff I didn’t really need. I realize some of this can be blamed on anxiety and boredom causing a need for distraction, but I also soon observed that the real appeal was having something to look forward to. Each day I woke up thinking, “my protein powder is coming today!” or “yay, I’m getting my shipment of alkaline water later!”—sad, I know.
Remember looking forward to getting letters? I imagine many don’t. What makes letter-writing special compared to, say, emails?
What if we brought letter-writing back?
Even Martha Stewart extols the value of letters: the joy of putting thoughts on paper, the anticipation of waiting for the response, and the tangible keepsake a letter offers us for as long as we want it?
The world of the past was a very different place. Letters played an incredibly important role. Critical decisions that affected entire nations were transmitted via letter. Legendary romances blossomed through “correspondence”. All manner of news, whether it be good or bad, came to us in our mailboxes. Back then, letters had tremendous power.
Letters can also represent part of someone’s soul. Letters are not just made up of a person’s words and thoughts, but the style of their penmanship is as distinct as a thumbprint. There is a special magic, as Lakshmi Pratury explains, about holding paper that was held by someone else especially after that person is gone (like in the story she tells about her late dad’s letters).
Even today, writing and receiving a physical letter undoubtedly signals a personal touch: so much so, that a number of companies have appeared recently like Handwrytten that, for a fee, produce individuals and companies with remotely produced letters complete with authentic-looking “handwriting.”
So what are some ways to get started on letter writing?
Still feel tethered to digital? Begin with baby steps: try connecting with an online pen pal on the Lettrs app or have a custom crafted letter sent IRL via Felt.
Ready to dive into the real experience, but don’t have the tools?** Online merchants like Goulet pens and Jetpens sell high-quality stationery and fancy pens. Writing a letter on really nice paper with a glistening fountain pen just makes the experience that much more fun. According to 19th-century wisdom, choosing the right paper and pen (as well as salutation) was critical, especially for Victorian ladies.
Not sure who to write to? During the pandemic, there are more opportunities than ever to connect with others via handwritten letters. People in nursing homes who currently cannot have visitors, military personnel, and frontline workers are all worthy recipients of a personal letter, even if you don’t know them.
However, if you think about it, I’m sure there is someone in your family, your social circle, or from one of the many worlds you’ve moved amongst in your life who would probably be delighted at the sight of your return address on an envelope in their mailbox.
Order some stamps online, grab a pen, and get after it!
Photo: Petar Milošević via Wikimedia Commons
Excellent writing, Laura. Thank you for sharing. As someone who still sends handwritten letters in the mail to friends (along with regular FaceTime calls) I really enjoyed reading your musings on the personal touch that letter writing provides.