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The Demise of Letters & Postcards

21 December, 2015


Stevens, Alfred - Pleasant Letter - 1860-67

Pleasant Letter – Alfred Stevens, 1860-67  (Wikipedia)


Are you old enough to remember receiving personal letters that the postman/mailman delivered to your home?

PROMPT:  Jot down memories or ideas from a time before email, Facebook, mobile phones, etc. A time when letters were the main method of communication. When letters—lost, found, received, not answered—could change a life.

In the pre-computer times, a plot for a novel or story sometimes centred around a letter. In Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the male lead, Angel, loves Tess and wants to marry her. She writes a letter to him, confessing a past affair, and slips it under his door. She believes he’s read the letter and forgiven her, but later discovers he had NOT read it. Tragedy follows.

My Letter-writing

Today, I received two Christmas cards in the mail. I have one US cousin who sends a beautiful handmade card for my birthday and anniversary. Another relative annually sends an account of her year—written in iambic couplets (!). And my elderly aunt is the only relative who still sends me handwritten letters. I briefly imagine myself doing the same, but know I never will.

A friend’s adult children complained that her emails were ‘too long to read’.  So she now provides short, snappy and frequent Facebook comments. I would find that frustrating. I don’t write people often, but when I do, I engage, choosing particular experiences and ideas based on the interests of person I’m writing to.

Christmas postcard date unknown, circa 1900.

Christmas postcard date unknown, c. 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short message is not a new development. I have my grandmother’s postcard albums from the early 1900s. In those days, people enjoyed saving postcards sent to them–often a photo of a faraway location, sometimes a joke picture.

The messages on the backs of the old postcards I have were written in pencil. I guess people didn’t take quill pen and inkwell with them when they traveled. And many senders simply signed their name, providing no message. Perhaps it was enough in those days to share a visual joke or faraway scene, rather than give a personal account of ones’ strip.

Letter-writing paraphernalia is vanishing. I still have some sets of stationery, plus beautiful cards, fountain pens, and different colours of ink, in bottles. All are untouched, as dated as the Model T Ford.

What about the demise of the aerogramme? When I moved to Australia, my mother used the one-page, lightweight aerogramme to convey news. Harper, the small Kansas town where she and Dad lived, had 1800 citizens and a two-block main street. Still, she found a surprising number of developments and dramas to write about. She advised me about the wheat harvest, church and town doings, her China painting, their backyard garden, plus square dance club, fishing trips with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law, duck hunting in fall, and sightseeing trips.

I learned how crucial letter writing was when I was in my first teen crush, with the boy living at the other end of Kansas. I spent time, too much, selecting just the right stationery and ink colour when corresponding. Sometimes I made my own envelopes, using picture pages from Life magazine. I impatiently checked our mailbox each day for a letter. When I received his letter, I took it to school and re-read it during geometry class. (Note to younger self: in terms of preparing for university, spending time learning maths is better than a short adolescent romance.)

The biggest issue was finding a safe place to hide the letters from my nosy older brother. One day he snatched the latest missive and locked himself in the bathroom, threatening to read it. I yelled back, rattled the doorknob, and started kicking the door–and my foot went through a thin panel on the door. For some reason, my parents blamed me!

A few years later, my brother was in Vietnam, where he wrote to my parents and to me.  I still have his letters. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll read them. Perhaps they will be healing, helping me understand his life, how two Purple Hearts led to the PTSD that dogged his life, and his inability or lack of interest in keeping in touch.

In my loft storage, I still have a few old letters from various boyfriends dating from high school and college days. Reading them now gives me an insight into my young self, what interested me, worried me,  made me happy.

In those days, I never imagined a time when getting mail would not be exciting. But now my letterbox holds mainly bills and flyers. It serves as the occasional dropoff place for a book or gift of produce from a neighbour. And because it’s mostly empty , it’s become the perfect home for a big, but harmless, huntsman spider.





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