When Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in 1955, he wrote to John Harvey to explain why he was stepping down at age 81. It’s worth noting that Churchill retired as PM, not from British politics; he served as a member of Parliament for another nine years.
And that same year we had “Papa” Hemmingway typing a crazy stream of consciousness to Marlene Dietrich. At least I hope he typed it himself. I’d hate to think of him dictating to a secretary lines like, “If I were staging it would probably have something novel like having you shot onto the stage, drunk, from a self-propelled minnenwerfer which would advance in from the street rolling over the customers…As you landed on the stage drunk and naked I would advance from the rear, or from your rear wearing evening clothes and would hurriedly strip off my evening clothes to cover you revealing the physique of Burt Lancaster Strongfort…”
Auction estimates peg the Churchill letter at $25,000 and the Hemingway missive at $35,000-50,000. Stratospheric prices indeed, but 20th century icons wrote and signed both. However, even obscure correspondents can command big bucks. Diana Carnegie, the wife of a WWII officer, penned a letter about VE day in London that is part of a small collection of mail expected to sell for $500-800, the price boosted by the titilating mention of couples having sex in the shadow of Buckingham Palace.
If letters from a time when they were common can command such prices today, what will snail mail from our era be worth tomorrow? With so few letters available, I predict one heck of a seller’s market.
It’s not that people have stopped writing. On the contrary, many of us write more than ever what with texting, emails, Facebook and, ahem, blogs. It’s like the whole world is carbon copied (anyone remember those?) on everything. When Anthony Hopkins wrote an email to Bryan Cranston a few months ago, praising his superlative work in Breaking Bad, it went viral. We could all peer over Cranston’s shoulder to read his letter. But no one, not even Cranston, could actually hold it.
How well does our electronic world capture the evanescent quality of a letter, that feeling of a distinct moment in time? References to topical events, people and fads provide much of the context, but tangible correspondence has other qualities as well. As I once mentioned in an essay for Newsweek, handwritten mail has a personality all its own.
I suppose we could save our favorite messages with screen shots, including the background hum of ads and other headlines. And website designs evolve so that, too, would provide context. But there’s still that basic difference between a message to millions and a letter to one.
As the number of available letters declines, the price is bound to increase. So, if you’re looking for a good reason to pen notes to friends and family the old-fashioned way, considerer this: your snail mail could become someone’s future windfall. Just remember to become famous or add juicy details to bump the price.