The Bravery of Old England

I’ve never had a plum pudding, carried flaming to the table with a sprig of holly on it like a jaunty beret. But frankly, after seeing some Victorian Christmas cards that star Ye Olde Figgy Pudding, I doubt that I am courageous enough to handle the experience. Those Victorians were an intrepid lot to face that dessert year after year.

Even when the illustrators were aiming for cute, they usually hit a bull’s eye in badass scary. Imagine meeting this fellow strolling down Christmas Tree Lane:

I have not decided which is worse, the knife and fork arms or the strange glass balanced on his head. Actually, the twigs spelling Merry Christmas are pretty creepy, too. And despite the presence of Santa in this next card, I would give those treats a miss (hit turbulence with his sleigh and he could wipe out an entire town):

Even the Victorians admitted their favorite Christmas treat had a dark side:

And while puddings still enjoy a certain popularity in England and the Commonwealth, I definitely prefer the more modern interpretation, such as my daughter found with “Mr. Pudding” on a t-shirt in Sydney, Australia years ago.

But then, I don’t think that was a “Christmas” pudding.

My unease continues…

The Pen Holder’s Tale

My friend India gave me this jar 20 years ago. She knew that I liked willow ware, which its pseudo Chinese landscape is reminiscent of; plus, it did not sell at our yard sale.

It looks old, but not valuable, so I’ve always used it as a pen holder on my desk, on hand for taking notes, writing in my journal, and far too infrequently, penning a letter.

When India first gave me the jar, I checked the bottom for markings. None. It looked worn so I figured it was at least 50 years old or more, but I thought nothing more about its origins until I saw this picture:

They’re not twins, but those jars definitely look like siblings or close cousins of mine. The chipped pair in the photo are among the 13,000 Victorian jam jars and pickle pots unearthed in an archaeological dig at the site of a new London rail station.

Crosse and Blackwell once operated a food manufacturing factory on the site, chucking left over or broken pots into a cistern from the 1870s until 1921. The blue and white jars were designed to hold preserved ginger, so I believe my pot once held the same.

I’ll never know how and when it crossed the Atlantic to America and traveled overland to California, but whenever I look at my pen holder now, I will think of London housewives, Crosse and Blackwell and a long ago jar of preserved ginger.

Letter to Santa

Letter to SantaSomewhere, hidden away (so well I can’t remember where to find them) are my daughter’s letters to Santa. There aren’t many because the span of years between her learning to write and her relinquishing her belief in the magical fellow was brief.

Yet, for a few years, literacy and wonder combined. Before she wrote letters, she simply told me what she wanted Santa to bring her. Dumbo one year, the Bambi movie another — whatever loomed large on her childhood horizon.

If you have a little one writing a letter to Santa this year, or are penning one yourself, you may use the image at the top of this page to decorate a card or stationery. It’s available (for free) on the Graphic Fairy website.

And get those letters in the mailbox; this is the busiest time of year for the post office AND the North Pole!

Visiting Royal Gorge

Royal gorgeSummer postcard season is under way. Let’s kick it off with a visit to Royal Gorge in Colorado. The suspension bridge that spans the vertigo-inducing gash between rocky cliffs was billed as the world’s highest from 1929 until 2001.

Suspended 955 feet above the Arkansas River, it remains the highest bridge in the United States.

Quick facts:

  • 1,260 feet long
  • 18 feet wide
  • 1292 planks in its wooden walkway

My friend Caroline wrote, “We went to the Royal Gorge today but instead of viewing it from the top we rode a train along the bottom.” She also recalled my telling her that I had an old photo of my father on that bridge, a tidbit I shared when she spoke of her travel plans.

wolf452My parents visited the Royal Gorge Bridge during their transcontinental drive to California in 1950. Driving in Dad’s classic 1938 Packard, they stopped the car on the wooden plank expanse long enough to take a few photos. Dad looks like a Cecil B. DeMille fanboy in his jodhpurs and tall riding boots, bent intently over a movie camera mounted on a tripod.

I notice Mom took the photo of Dad from the solid dirt of the road. She never liked heights. When Dad took us to the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, Mom declined the treat. The bridge was built to give visitors a view of Royal Gorge so perhaps Mom did not have to cross it to get to California. Maybe she just stood at the entrance, yelling “Careful!” to Dad as he shot movies and photos of the breathtaking drop below.

While you can still walk or drive across the bridge, it’s now part of an amusement park complex that includes an aerial tramway, cafe, souvenir shops, train ride through the gorge and even bungee jumping.

But the Royal Gorge Bridge remains the star attraction — and something to write home about.

Royal Gorge

Civil War Mail

Civil war 3Next to decent rations and warm socks, what do soldiers want most when far from home? Mail.

Troops of the American Civil War were no exception. 3¢ postage would send a letter to a Union soldier; Confederates paid 5¢ (for up to 500 miles) at the beginning of the conflict, but 10¢ for all stamps after 1862. Letters that were forwarded because the army marched to a new encampment cost extra, and the soldiers on the receiving end had to pay for any postage due.

Civil War 4People wrote letters on lined paper and sealed them in 5 ½ by 3 inch envelopes that looked very much like those used today. Because letters were slipped into envelopes that could be glued shut, no one needed wax seals any more. And to dress up the mail, printers offered a slew of patriotic envelopes.

Most senders affixed the stamp in the standard upper right corner, but some either didn’t get that memo or wanted to send private messages via the language of stamps. According to one definition, an upside-down-stamp might mean “Do you remember me?”

Civil War 2

Of course, no matter how decorated the envelope or how much postage cost, what concerned soldiers and their families back home the most was hearing from their loved ones, even if the news was heartbreaking.

See more illustrated envelopes from the American Civil War.

Rare Art of Letter Writing

write-more-lettersWith depressing regularity, I find essays and news articles about the “Lost Art of Letter Writing.” I even wrote one myself for Newsweek in 2001.

Yet, however uncommon it may be to receive a letter, the art is not lost. No one needs to research arcane manuscripts to discover how the ancients communicated with pen and paper. Office supply stores still sell envelopes; card shops, drug stores and bookstores sell notecards; and even supermarkets sell stamps. Postmen travel their rounds. We all know how to construct written messages as we prove daily with texts, emails, and tweets.

Maybe all we lack is that focused moment when everything magically comes together — paper, envelope, pen, stamp and purpose. Perhaps what was once a common solitary activity needs to be reintroduced in a more social setting.

vka-letters-229301-jpgA museum in Canada recently set up a letter writing station in conjunction with an exhibit, promising to stamp and mail any letters that people wrote on site. The Jaffee Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University holds Real Mail Fridays once a month to couple letter writing with coffee and cookies. And several libraries and local organizations are hosting their own letter writing parties. Should I organize something for Post Whistle in my area? Stay tuned for more on that idea.

In the meantime, Valentine’s Day approaches, and that’s a great reason to pop something in the mail. Let’s make the Rare Art of Letter Writing a little more common in our own corners of the world.

The Age of Telegrams

Telegram Envelope.– …. .- – / …. .- – …. / –. — -.. / .– .-. — ..- –. …. – ..–..

“What hath God wrought?” telegraphed Samuel Morse in 1844 from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, opening a new era of communications in the United States.

Samuel_Morse_1840Morse first developed and patented his system in 1837, independent of and slightly after two British inventors created a system based on needles pointing to letters. However, Morse’s system used a code he developed with his assistant, Alfred Vail, and that language of dots and dashes dominated speedy communications around the world for nearly a century.

Later improvements in technology eliminated the need for operators who knew how to tap out and decipher code, replacing them with typewriter keyboards and teleprinters.

In movies, messengers carrying telegrams often signal bad news, but telegrams played many other roles in everyday life. Their appeal was in their speed, transmitting information over long distances far faster than a letter and more reliably (and cheaply) than early telephone services.

Businesses sent crucial updates, families announced births and weddings, and journalists relayed important stories to their newspapers. The one common element was a sense of urgency, of news that could not wait to travel by ship, train or postal van.

When I discovered a Western Union telegram in my parents’ papers, I wondered what important news it contained. Well…see for yoursef.

TelegramApparently, Dad was just as bad about writing letters to his sister Vera as he was later in life. She wired her big brother to say, in essence, “Call me collect!”

Of course, the advent of the Internet and email, not to mention fax machines, obviated the need for telegrams to conduct business or impart breaking news. However, to mark formal events like births and weddings — or as a retro means of communications — telegrams are still sent in several countries, including Belgium, Canada, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

In 1999, officials sent a telegram from the World War II era liberty ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, to President Clinton as the last commercial ship-to-shore US telegraph message by Globe Wireless. Its final leg of transmission to the White House was by email.

What did the message say? The same words Morse sent more than a century and a half earlier: “What hath God wrought?”

.– …. .- – / …. .- – …. / –. — -.. / .– .-. — ..- –. …. – ..–..

If you would like to translate your own message into Morse code, try this handy website.

Christmas Card #1

FirstchristmascardEnglish civil servant, inventor and author, Sir Henry Cole, introduced the first commercial Christmas card in 1843. Its depiction of a large convivial group echoes the still popular notion of what Christmas should be, family and friends gathered together in celebration. Side panels illustrate charity towards the poor.

I’m struck at how both themes also dominate a story published by Charles Dickens that same year — a little tale called A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in a mere six weeks.

Christmas_Shopping,_1910A printer finally brought Christmas cards to the American market 30 years later. And through the years people have sent and received millions of them.

When I was a child, I loved running to the box at the end of our driveway to collect the mail in December because I was allowed to open so many of the envelopes. My favorite cards had glitter sprinkled on the snow.

Christmas CardWhile I don’t think I have the first Christmas card I ever received, I can show you the first Christmas card I’ve received this year. My friend Audree sent this stylish tree from Australia, and it’s even flecked with glitter.

Fewer cards arrive in the mail now, but I hope the custom of exchanging them won’t have an end date. I don’t save emailed greetings, but I’ve saved some of my favorite cards over the years because they were too pretty to throw away or they made me laugh or someone wrote something special inside.

So I will share a few of those with you in this blog over the next couple of weeks as we count down the days to Christmas. However, I’ll have to “send” them without envelopes.


Thanks for Thanksgiving

plimouth plantation 2I apologize for my unannounced hiatus from Post Whistle — no new mail for more than a week!  Now that I’m back and Thanksgiving is just past, it seems fitting to talk about why the fourth Thursday in November is a national holiday in America.

Woman_weavingFirst and foremost, the tradition is rooted in either a real feast or stories about a feast held by the Wampanoag tribe and the English separatists who survived their first winter in the New World. No one called them Pilgrims then, not until about two centuries later. Most of those early settlers would have died without the food and agricultural expertise of the First Nations people. So we know whom to thank!

But why thank anyone on that particular day?

Sarah_Hale_portraitFor that we should thank Sarah Josepha Hale, a 19th century author and magazine editor who championed the cause of a national day of thanksgiving for almost two decades.

While several New England states celebrated a day to give thanks, the dates ranged from October through January, and few citizens of the South recognized a date at all. Sarah began advocating a national day of thanksgiving in 1846 and wrote letters to five different presidents over the course of 17 years: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and finally Abraham Lincoln in 1863, when the country was engulfed in Civil War.

“You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

In an era suffused with violence on a national scale, perhaps the idea of a day on which to gather in peace and give thanks held special appeal. Five days after Sarah wrote her letter, Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3 promoting Sarah’s idea of a national day of Thanksgiving in November.

Congress passed official legislation to that effect on October 6, 1941.

So thank you to the Wampanoag people who fed strangers from across the sea and thank you Sarah for encouraging a day of thanks even in the midst of war.


Sept. 28th 1863

Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan[2] are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.[3]

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the “Ladys Book”

The Pen Mightier Than the Guard

Drishti Harchandrai If at first you don’t succeed, write a letter.

When an 11-year-old girl in India tried to interview Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of the Indian state, Maharashtra, security guards turned her away from the guest house where he was staying.

But Drishti Harchandrai, a student at Mumbai’s JB Petit School, was undeterred. After all, her HOMEWORK was at stake.

She wrote a letter to Fadnavis and insisted that a guard deliver it, “The security guards are not allowing me in, if and when you get my letter please call on my cell number… I need an interview for school.”

Needless to say, Drishti bagged her journalistic scoop.

Read more in this Times of India article. 

Indian letter