Letter Writing: A Dying Art?

With the disappearance of personal letter writing in this age of mass and instantaneous communication, what effect will this have on future mementos of the past?

When did you last receive a proper letter? Not a bill or a request for charitable donations, which seem to make up the bulk of the mail these days, but a handwritten, chatty epistle from a friend or family member? With the exception of short notes in Christmas cards (and even many of these have been replaced by typed summaries of the previous year’s events distributed to all and sundry) I can’t remember the last time I received one.

Communications have changed immensely even in the last few years. It’s faster – to the point of instantaneous – and you don’t need to buy paper and stamps or worry that the message will go astray in the mail (assuming you use the correct email address,) but somehow getting an email doesn’t have the same excitement factor as receiving a missive in the mail.

I used to be a prodigious letter writer. The habit started in my teens when my desire to know about other places outside my home town in England led me to find pen-pals. At one point I was writing to nine people from Germany, Sweden, France, Japan and the U.S., comparing stories of life in our respected countries, in one particular case, on an almost weekly basis.

As well as the educational benefits, one of the great pleasures from my efforts was to see the brightly stamped airmail envelope (occasionally two or three!) amongst the morning mail delivery. True sometimes the handwriting was hard to read and, in the case of the Europeans and Japanese, the English often broken, but those letters forged a personal connection which in most cases lasted for years until the busyness of careers and romance interrupted the flow.

After leaving home, letter writing was the way to stay in touch with family and friends (who could afford to phone then?) and even after the arrival of email and cheap international calls, I still continued to write to my parents. A few years before her death, my mother gave me a bundle of letters I had written to her in my late teens/early twenties while in Toronto and New York – an unexpected record of my travels and observations preserved for many years. So imagine my surprise when, on helping to clear out her house, I discovered all the letters I’d written to her in later years from Hong Kong (during which time my daughter was born) and from the first few years of our time in New York. 

While these letters wouldn’t mean much to anyone else, to me they are priceless, and on looking at them the other day, I had to wonder how the changes in communications will affect our records of the past. Historical museums often display handwritten letters to evoke the attitudes and concerns of the time – letters which can add an intensely human touch to the other objects on display whether the writer was a president, an activist, a soldier or just an ordinary person living through challenging times.

Will future generations view museum-worthy e-mails and get the same sense of connection? Given how easy it is to delete an e-mail will potentially important messages from history be lost before it is realized how valuable they are? Will pen-pals become email-pals or will Facebook and Twitter signal the end of personal letter writing altogether?  

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Walden Macnair June 13, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Hand written letters are pretty much gone. There are even those that advocate not teaching cursive writing in school anymore because it's rarely used in real life. I'm not so much worried about the loss of those personal letters but I am concerned about the loss of history to future generations. It's always been the written instruments that have defined our past. Whether it's a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation or the Declaration of Independence, there is a certain awe inspiring feeling that the print out of an important email will never have. Add to that, the question of what will happen to family photos that exist as a jpeg file on some hard drive somewhere and will never be printed so that future generations can ask, who's that in the picture and see what their great grandmother looked like and the funny clothes she wore. Ultimately I don't think that Facebook or Twitter is instrumental in this loss, they are simply a tool that's being used and will ultimately fall by the wayside to whatever future form of communication replaces them. Although some of us may long for the good old days you've got to keep it in perspective. Today will be tomorrow's good old days.
Mel Parish June 13, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Walden, Interestingly, the June issue of the AARP Bulletin has an article 'Vanishing' which lists several fixtures of modern day life which futurists predict will make Americans 'wax nostalgic' in 50 years, including snail mail and cursive writing. Re the latter they state that ' Hawaii, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio have officially dropped handwriting as an educational requirement, with many states currently considering doing the same. One day extra instruction may be required for students who wish to read historical documents in their original drafts.' So not only may there not be further written instruments in our historical records, but future generations may not be able to read the ones that do currently exist! (I guess they will have to put a typed version next to the original so that people can understand what it says). You hit on a good point about photos too. Maybe instead of bequeathing the family albums, people will bequeath the back-ups of online albums. I suppose on the plus side it does mean that if you think there are going to be family squabbles over who gets the albums, it's much more affordable to produce a copy for all, but again, there is something special about the ageing old photo that suggests time past that I don't think will ever be replicated on a jpeg file.
Aidan June 13, 2012 at 11:28 PM
Sad, but true.


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