Comparing the Eras: Where People Wrote Letters and When They Did Not

2010 March 9
by Grace Boyle

I love writing. You know, my hand, a pen and paper. Not typing on a keyboard.

My mother taught me to always send hand-written thank you letters. I still do. I have my own stationery, a drawer full of unique cards, notes and letters so I am equipped to write at anytime. For example, I wrote 20Things I love about my friends, in list form, from the inspiration of Operation Nice and sent the handwritten lists around the country to my friends. Think about how good it feels to find a card or letter in your mailbox amongst the mundane bills.

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Funny coming from a blogger, right?

Well, it worries me, because we’re the first generation to have no written record of ourselves. An article on the importance of writing humorously asks, “If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.” A valid thought, no doubt.

I find it ironic that we e-mail and text and all the massive amounts of information shared through YouTube, television, cameras, phones, networks and blogging which record every second of our lives, however, it can all be deleted or lost in translation. Newsweek author, Malcolm Jones finds the root of this problem “is sifting through the set of data. The most common complain of our time is that we are overwhelmed by information, unmediated and unstoppable.”

I agree with Jones when it comes to lack of writing in our generation: “The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not.”

Writing isn’t only a nostalgic feeling for us but “when we read a letter, we develop an image of the letter writer unavailable to us in any other way.” We are transported to the writers words, voice and personality. The written word is alive to me. It’s like comparing your favorite book, eloquently written and envisioned, to a movie. The two simply do not compare.

Writing is important and writing is real.

I write to clear my mind. I write to understand how I feel. I write to express myself. I write to show my love. I write love letters. I have a box of love letters I’ve received over time, from crushes, the big love, high school, college and this year. I will keep them forever. I write to give. I write lists and notes, everyday. I write what I want in life.

I write and I don’t want to stop writing. Pretty soon (if not already) we will be comparing our eras – where people used to write and to now and the future, when we stopped the art of physically writing.

***UPDATE*** A reader sent me this great article in the Wall Street Journal talking about the postal service’s declining business but how the written word is still going strong. I wanted to share with everyone because of it’s relevancy and interesting content. Not to mention, thank you all so much for sharing. I’m happy to hear, there are so many others who find an affinity with the written word. Keep sharing and of course, keep writing. -G

Have you thought about the historical context of hand-written versus online? Do you still write letters or cards or is completely obsolete to you?

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  • jenstuart27

    I have a box of old letters too. I will probably never throw those out. It's kind of like photo albums. Even though the people in the pictures may not be in your life any more for whatever reason, it's still important to remember that moment and how it made you feel then and how it shaped you now. Great post as always!

  • CarlNelson

    I have made writing postcards, letters, etc. to friends and family a priority in the last year or so.

    There is something about the physicality and intimacy of the written word that changes the way we read. A lot can be told from a persons hand writing – perhaps even mood when written.

    The other thing I think we lose is that handwriting is a form of art; having taken up calligraphy in the last year it has a deep resonance with me when I receive a written letter.

  • Christina

    Oddly, I find more of my blogging friends are more inclined to handwrite a letter than those not much online.

    I too keep a box of old letters. I love looking through them, especially as so many of the older people in my life have since past away – that connection is still there.

    When it comes to letter writing, there always seems to be much more intimate details that I'm willing to put down on paper than in an email. And like Carl, I've studied calligraphy – a well written note is the sum of it's parts – the paper, the content, the handwriting.

    I'm sure many of my letters are thrown out, most are responded to by email. But the act of doing is just as nice as the act of receiving.

  • Jerod Morris

    To say that you hit the nail on the head with this post would be an understatement. And thank you for reminding me of how much I used to love getting out a pen, a piece of paper, and just sitting down and writing…no backspace, no spell check, just me, my tools of expression, and the thoughts I wanted (usually needed) to express.

    In this day and age you really have to WANT to handwrite something. Typing is always quicker and more convenient. But certain thoughts and certain people deserve the care, the passion, and the genuine effort it takes to craft a handwritten letter.

    I come to this blog to be inspired by something to think about something important in a different, more insightful way. You never disappoint.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Jen Letters are so precious. Although photo albums and actually developing film is obsolete, I have a closet full of photo albums and there's nothing like thumbing through the pages (versus a Facebook album) to look at old photos. Thanks for sharing!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Carl That's great to hear. I like how you mention the actual aesthetic of hand writing and mood. Great point!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Christina That's an interesting observation about bloggers and handwriting letters. I love how you and Carl have both studied calligraphy, it's a beautiful art! And lastly, the act of writing the letter is as gratifying as receiving it, you are right :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Jerod Thanks for the kudos, RT's and kind words about the blog :) I'm happy to hear others resonate with this lost art. Maybe we're not the era that completely forgets about handwritten letters…

    There is something to be said to taking out a pen, creatively expressing yourself, taking the time to send it and thoughtfully place your words onto the paper. Thanks for sharing!

  • jennyblake

    Great post, Grace! What I love about writing by hand is that it seems to exercise a completely different part of our brain. It's the quieter part…the one that doesn't get expressed or used every day (as opposed to the 100wpm frenzied typing part of our brain).

    I still write in my journal every night and send hand-written thank you cards too. I love receiving hand-written cards (and have a soft spot in particular when it's coming from a guy I like). I used to tell boyfriends that I didn't care what they got me for my birthday, Christmas or Valentine's Day – all I wanted was a hand-written card – to me that means more than any gift that money can buy.

    What you said about our generation not having a written record really struck me – I wonder the same thing about photographs. I used to pride myself on keeping a photo album for every year of my life. But for the last few years, those photos have just lived in my computer (and my Facebook account). What will I show my kids or grandkids one day? I'm not really sure…

  • ashalah

    My thoughts EXACTLY. I love writing, but I will admit that I have fallen behind on hand written letters. Since the start of this year, and especially since I moved out here, I have wanted to start sending letters more. It saddens me that my relationships have no written history, no paper trail of moments shared between people. I am determined to get back into writing letters–and forcing my friends to do the same :)

    Excellent post!

  • Beth Oppenheim

    This is a great post, Grace! I really love the writing aspect of thanking people, and of the emotional experience of writing down the ideas that we have. It's so important – even coming from bloggers. Lovely :)

  • Stephenie

    I like this post. I was just wondering a few weeks ago if they still teach cursive to kids in school… I write everyday in my journal. It feels less permanent if I don't handwrite it and I always use pen so that it will last. I don't want anyone to read my personal, sometimes mindless, thoughts… but maybe someday it will be a record of my life for my kids, should I have them. I don't really write letters, though I do send handwritten cards and thank you cards.

  • Jennifer

    I've never given it much thought before, but you make a valid point. I do love the written language. I love to write, it's why I spent so much time on my handwriting in the past. And it's why I keep a diary. :) Somewhere, at sometime, my most personal thoughts will mean something to someone, and there they will be found, uncensored and not lost in cyber space.

    It's easy to pick-up a 160-character Tweet, and laugh or cry about the things said. But you don't get to know a person that way. I have written some messages in the past online that meant something to me, but I take my time with them, and I keep them in some sort of record to look back on later if they were that important.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Beth Thank you! I'm so happy to hear you agree and feel the same affinity for “real” writing 😉

  • Grace Boyle

    @Stephenie That's great to hear that you write everyday in your journal. It's very therapeutic for me as well. Even if you're writing cards, that's still a beautiful form of writing and expressing yourself. Thanks for sharing and stopping by!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Jennifer Isn't it interesting that an e-mail can be lost in translation but somehow, writing can really portray emotion and feeling. I'm not sure why but I do feel this way. I sometimes think about burying my diaries and hopefully someday in the future, someone will find it and it will be part of history. Hehe, don't tell anyone 😉

  • Walter

    I never would have thought the declining art of hand writing until I read this. It got me thinking its effect in our future when it comes to the accounts of our lives. I realize that I'm writing less these days, except for small notes I send to someone. :-)

  • Elisa Doucette

    I send handwritten thank you cards to each sales appointment I go on, thanking my clients for taking the time to meet with me. Best .46 I've spent per client. They appreciate it so much and it makes me happy to know that I have gone a step beyond for them. Highly recommend it.

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  • Grace Boyle

    @Walter I'm glad it got you thinking … until I started researching this idea I realized how important writing can be. And you're right, it is hard to make the effort to write sometimes. Maybe this is your little reminder :) Thanks for sharing, Walter.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Elisa Wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing it – you're so thoughtful and I agree, it goes SO far, for so little.

  • Laura Kimball

    Good morning, Grace, wow, what a topic to start the day with! I have never thought about writing as a way to keep a written record of ourselves–or maybe I have. You and I have shared our love of journals before through those (even ones that are just notes and random musings) I'm able to remember exactly what happened at certain points in my life. The only cards and handwritten letters I write are birthday cards or letters to my grandma (which I keep. Feel free to ask me what the weather was like in Iowa around certain birthdays) :)

    I agree with you that by posting blogs, comments, and sending emails as correspondence we risk losing that historic trail if, say, a website crashes. Though, I'm a person who saves everything, so I think that for those people who are “correspondence pack rats” or sentimental will keep those letters and maintain their history. It's just a different use of technology. What do you think?

  • Royce

    I find this interesting cause it seems like the odds of a bunch of letters being lost or destroyed is pretty high – at least over 200 years since Jefferson's time, right? Now Jefferson was famous so maybe his letters were well cared for, fine, but what about my letters? Assuming I never achieve Jefferson-like fame, that is. Are my letters gonna make it? What if there is some errant apartment fire, subdued only after consuming my records?

    On the other hand there's a case to be made for the transient nature of blogs. Sure, they seem like they're always there. But if WordPress decides to stop hosting blogs that have been unused for, say, 3 years, do those records go poof? So that's less than ideal.

    Essay on transience of communiques aside, I love your idea of sending something handwritten and meaningful to friends on a regular basis. I completely agree that getting that awesome letter in the mail, alongside bills and junk mail, is a fantastic thing. Totally brightens my day.

    Hey by the way, my address is….. haha =)

  • Ron

    I've been hounding my friends to become pen-pals with me – I have two or three regular writin' friends. I see it becoming *the* thing to do for intimately personal conversation, and maybe in the future people will go out of their way to leave that lasting bit of paper in the world.

  • jrmoreau

    I've always viewed letter writing as a close second to spending hours having deep conversation in a cafe. It's definitely one of the most intimate and cherished ways I can communicate with people I care about.

    Great post Grace!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Ron That's so great you still have pen-pals. I will admit that I don't regularly write letters, but I always send cards, notes and letters monthly. It is something you have to do to go out of your way. I like to hear you're still going strong!

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  • David

    First off, why is Disqus disgusted with me? It always gives me a hard time when signing in. It has an attitude problem, or maybe I do. Anyway, we don’t get along but that has nothing to do with my comment on your post. So…

    I LOVE the handwritten letter – getting them, giving them. Yes, I’m a sucker for the written word. And I really feel the handwritten letter is a dying art.

    Maybe I’m weird, but I think a proper letter is kind of sexy. To let your feelings flow to your fingertips and capture it on paper. It shows you care enough to take the time to kick it old school. Plus, tangible is good and printing out an e-mail just isn’t the same.

    I recently wrote a love letter to a girl because she said no one had ever written her one before (SHOCKING) and because I thought it would be cute to give as part of her Valentine’s Day gift. I thought I did a good job with the deckle-edge paper and old fashioned wax stamp. Could have been swoon worthy. But then she dumped me right before V-Day and I tore it up and threw it in the trash. I dropped my paintbrush in the dirt and had my canvas kicked in. But despite that, I still think handwritten letters can be sweet. Just not sure I’ll be writing another one anytime soon.

  • LostInCheeseland

    I often begin blog posts and articles by writing my ideas down on pen and paper. I find that my ideas flow much more naturally and there is a closeness to the words.

    A good friend of mine who lived in Paris and has since returned to the States would rather take the time to write me a letter in beautiful, French-inspired stationary than to send me an email and I must admit, I quite like opening my mailbox and finding a humorous little message that brightens my day much more than receiving a few phrases in an email.

    When I go back to the States I often look through old love letters from ex boyfriends (surely before professions of love through email became ALL the rage) and it makes me sad that so few people take the effort today to express themselves through the written word like that.

    Great poste Grace!

  • Vanessa

    Really love this post! For me personally, and a lot of people who have commented, the ability to back to a card, note or photo and really remember a specific moment is invaluable. I often find myself asking tons of questions on my childhood and know that I would have loved to have notes to go back to from my family and friends. That's why I decided when my best friend got pregnant I would begin writing monthly letters to her son about what was going on before he got to this crazy world. Now he is almost a year old and I can't wait to share with her all the letters from his first year.

  • AllyB

    My heart flutters at blank notebooks, stationary, and really nice pens.

    (I'm going to the book club meeting in Denver tonight and can't wait to meet you! I don't know anyone, so I'll be the shy girl.)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Ally Oh me too! I like that you like nice pens, I have many and love the way that they each write. I can't wait to meet you either :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Vanessa That story about your friend's son is absolutely beautiful. I can tell you now, that idea is far more meaningful and long-lasting than any baby “gift item” someone would register for. Thanks for sharing that!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Lindsey I love hearing that you begin blog posts by writing your ideas down by hand. I sometimes do this too – especially when I'm traveling or have an idea. That goes back to my inspiration post, I always have a piece of paper on me to jot down ideas.

    Thanks for sharing these stories – they're awesome!

  • Grace Boyle

    @James Intimate and cherished, indeed! I agree.

  • Grace Boyle

    @David I'm disqusted with you! Kidding. Plus, a little 'tude is good. Keeps us on our feet.

    That story was sad, because a real old fashioned wax stamp and proper paper for a proper love letter…sigh. At least you had the intelligence to do such a thing, it's okay, it's her loss. As a writer and proponent of hand-written letters, don't you dare let that one experience make you stop writing letters. Just try to use it in a different form, to someone else, like your mom or close friend that lives far away and needs a smile :) Maybe that's just what you need to hop back on the horse.

  • justatitch

    I love the idea of sending your friends a list of 20 Things You Love about them!

    Personally, I'm a HUGE fan of snail mail, and I've kept a handwritten diary since age 7. It simultaneously thrills and scares me that I have all of that personal history recorded.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Justatitch Yes, it was such a fun project. You should check out Operation Nice – it's filled with goodies like that. I'm happy to hear you're a snail mail fan :) Thanks for sharing!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Ashalah It's hard to keep up. I like to intermingle writing letters but I admit I don't do it regularly. But I do try for monthly :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Laura I'm happy to hear you like the topic. It really interested me, too! It is a different use of technology and we still have a medium that documents the written word … but somehow, on paper, hard copy means so much. The hand writing, the emotion and the time it takes to produce is the difference…

    I just updated this post to include a great article in WSJ…check it out, might help explain more :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Royce You are IMing me right now 😉 I am multi-tasking.

    You bring up a good point about hosting services, where blogs go and what happens when they dissipate? Also, we have a medium to portray the written word so as a generation, we're expressing ourselves, I just think it's a bit different.

    Check this out, my friend James, took it to this level and you can actually send him an address then he will send you something (…) haha he read your mind !

  • David

    I send handwritten letters to my Grandma, she's 90.

    Hot, right? Don't pretend you're not turned on. I've resorted to wooing old woman that are blood related to me (heavy sigh).

  • Mike

    My handwriting is terrible – I can't even write in a straight line if the paper isn't already pre-ruled – so I make a compromise and just print out emails. That way I have a record of particularly interesting moments in my life, without having to actually write.

  • jenniferalaine

    I love getting cards in the mail, and love sending them even more. Although they're nothing more than an “I miss you, hope you're having a great day”, it's still tangible and real and somehow more heartfelt.

  • Kat_ksk

    I love writing (and receiving) letters, and I have a couple of friends with the same geeky interest, so we at times exchange them. But it's tough, because whenever you have something to say, they'll probably find out online sooo much quicker, so we always end up stopping writing after a couple letters, then times goes by and we try again. I looove stationery though. I have this weird kind of passion for it.

  • Richard

    I too keep all handwritten letters and any notes from my boyfriend. I love looking back on them, touching them, crying over them. I know I'm probably weird, but seeing the handwriting of a friend means the world.

    Great post!

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  • postmuse

    I'm a letter/note/postcard writer and have been most of my adult life. My daughters are in the mid and late 20s and they still write thank you notes (and it seems like they write them within minutes of receiving the gift!) but are not really for writing much else. However, they document life in photos a whole lot more than I ever did. I think that counts for something. With digital age comes a lot more visual documentation.

    Will my hundreds and hundreds of letters sent to others survive hundreds of years? Maybe some. My postcard collection, which numbers more than 10,000 will certainly survive a while (and those are postcards written to me … not just dusty old cards I've bought at yards sales, though I do have some of those) because they are stored properly.

    Anyway, I am thrilled whenever I come upon another blog post about letter writing. There are more and more lately, and I'm hoping it is the start of a trend.

    — PostMuse /

  • Grace Boyle

    @Mike It's funny you bring up your handwriting (and a valid point, too) but I like that you still print out e-mails. My hand always hurts from writing, but it's also why writing means so much because of the time and effort involved. Thanks for sharing!