I wrote this essay for Newsweek more than 15 years ago, and it still holds true today.
When is the last time you found a letter in your mailbox? Not the false intimacy of a sweepstakes offer or a chatty update from your local congressman, but an actual letter written just to you. If you’re like most of us, it’s been a long, long while.
Most of the time life is too hectic to notice the lack of letters. After all, it’s not as if my mailbox is ever empty. Quite the opposite—the slot bulges with coupon packs and “limited-time offers,” a glossy medley of junk. Interspersed through that weekly take are bills and an occasional newsletter from my health-care provider. Letters are as rare as hens’ teeth.
I sometimes wonder if we are witnessing the end of an era. Will handwritten correspondence all but disappear in favor of e-mail and the ubiquitous telephone? If so, we will lose more than the occasional note in the postbox; we will lose the romance of the mail.
Years ago I checked my mailbox eagerly each day. What was inside? Tissue-thin letters from overseas, parcels tied with string, envelopes stuffed with snapshots? Anything was possible in that split second before the mailbox door creaked open.
My mother gave me a book that my grandfather received on his bar mitzvah in 1905, The Secret Service of the Post Office Department. Two golden mailbags are embossed on the front cover, crossed like swords on a heraldic shield. I like to think of them as mailbags rampant, their padlocks swinging proudly on metal clasps to deter the “depredators upon the mails” who people the book’s 23 chapters.
I fell in love with the idea of mail at an early age, even creating my own by gluing used postage stamps on old envelopes. At 12 I discovered pen pals, starting a parade of exotic mail from Poland, Australia and Japan. Once an envelope contained folded origami cranes, another time fragile pieces of amber found on the shore of the Baltic Sea. When I left home for college and a teaching job overseas, letters linked me to my family and friends, giving us the chance to share the minutia of our daily lives.
But the world changed. Phone rates dropped; e-mail debuted. No one seems to have time to write letters by hand anymore. Even Christmas cards are filled with colorful newsletters created on the family computer rather than scribbled personal notes. And I am as guilty as everyone else, flashing messages around the globe at the touch of a keyboard, receiving almost instantaneous replies. E-mail is popcorn correspondence: light, quick, fun, sometimes a little salty. Press the delete key, and the words vanish as if they had never been.
I miss the tangible world of letters, slitting open the envelopes, unfolding the pages. I miss their individuality, the personality that rides the curve of the ink.
At an exhibition about George Washington, I lingered over the glass cases where his correspondence lay displayed, tracing the peaks and valleys of his handwriting. He crossed out mistakes with precise rows of little loops. Where he paused to dip his pen, the words were momentarily darkened from the infusion of fresh ink. Pen stroke by pen stroke he wrote orders to his troops, letters to friends and ideas to shape a nation. Who will ever feel that connection with a modern president whose secretary types up notes on a laptop?
Of course, the transition away from the personal began long before e-mail. My grandfather lamented my lack of penmanship. He wrote with the flourishes of the Edwardian era, I with the unruly scrawl of a kid used to lined notepaper.
Greeting-card companies created cards for everyone and every occasion. Now we need never be troubled by having to write anything more taxing than our names.
Finally, the post office banned the use of twine around domestic packages, ensuring that everything is wrapped with smooth, dull uniformity. A few years back I received a parcel from Sri Lanka. Bright stamps festooned the rustling paper, which was secured with cords and sealing wax. I carefully snipped the package open at one end to preserve it, a memento of a fast-vanishing age.
Recently I made an effort to turn back the tide by writing letters to five friends, pages and pages on pale blue parchment. Within days they all answered—by e-mail.
My mailbox continues to groan under the weight of innumerable catalogs and credit-card offers. Once in a while a stray postcard worms its way into the heap. A flicker of the old romance flares, allowing me to imagine briefly that there exists somewhere a letter-writing world with wax-sealed parcels and crossed mailbags rampant. I hope someone there sends me a letter.
by Susan Lendroth, Newsweek, June 4, 2001