Film Friday: Writing Better Social Letters

Social Letter 1Ever stumped about what to say in a letter? Well, wonder no more! Just watch the 10-minute educational film, Writing Better Social Letters. Even though it was made in 1950, the short tried to avoid a common gender stereotype by making the girl the clueless correspondent and her brother the writing whiz.

“Are you through already?”

“Sure Sis, I just finished the letter to Aunt Helen and Uncle Ross.”

“I don’t know how you do it, Wally. You make it seem so easy…How do you write such good social letters?”

“Well, Nora, it’s a talent…”

Social Letter 2Once you get past the surreal world of Wally and Nora, it’s interesting to see how the basic tenets of letter writing used to be systematically outlined and enumerated like those of any other skill. Kids of today, many of whom have never corresponded by mail, might actually find some of the advice useful — once they finish rolling on the floor with laughter.

Film Friday: Watch Writing Better Social Letters online.

Social Letter 3

Absolutely Incredible Kids Day

Letter WriterHave you heard of Absolutely Incredible Kids Day (AIKD)?

Every year on the third Thursday in March (that would be this coming Thursday, March 19), adults are urged to join a national letter-writing campaign organized by Camp Fire USA to send kids letters of support, love and encouragement.

While the organization began their AIKD campaign in 1997, I only discovered its existence today. And what a wonderful idea it is, to not only encourage people to write letters, but to send them to children who seldom receive mail and may never have been sent an actual letter.

Camp Fire posts tips on their website about composing letters geared to children and even offers a few sample sentences that may help get the writing ball rolling.

So write and tell a kid you know just how incredible he/she is. It absolutely will make a difference.

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.

Found Stationery

Letters on magazine pagesDo you ever wonder who buys all of the beautiful boxes of stationery in card shops? Someone must be writing letters on it, but few are sent my way. Still, even when letter-writing was a common pastime, I didn’t always use “store-bought” stationery or postal aerogrammes.

I gathered sheets of letterhead from hotel and motel rooms to use long after I had moved on somewhere new. Disposable paper place mats in restaurants offered large writing surfaces and a way to pass the time until the server brought my meal. I wrote on notebook paper at school, striped computer paper when the old printers at work spit out blank pages between data, and even the occasional paper bag.

Therefore, I am proud to see my daughter carrying on the family tradition, writing long letters to friends on illustrations ripped from magazines. Not only does she write actual letters in our post-snail mail era, but she creates recycled works of art.

Ladies with Letters: How Shall I Reply?

Sir Luke FildesThe tip of a quill pen pressed against her lower lip, this brown-eyed girl muses, “How shall I reply?” to the letter she holds in her hand. Her own stationery rests on a green leather blotter on the writing desk. A silver pot holds either ink (but no stopper) or sand for blotting.

Perhaps the young woman sits at a table rather than a desk. Knowing my own desk clutter, it’s hard to believe that highly polished surface is kept clear at all times of everything but one blotter and a silver pot!

Of course, quill pens were no longer the writing instrument of choice by the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Samuel Luke Fildes painted this charming portrait. Pens with metal tips had been mass produced for decades. However, the soft tip of a feather pressed against her lip evokes a very different mood than a wood and metal pen. Everything about her is soft, from the tendrils of hair curling at her forehead to the wispy, lace-edged scarf tucked around her bodice. Her dreamy reverie is the personification of innocence and perhaps young love.

Fildes, a British artist, was born in 1843 — the beginning of the Victorian age. Strongly influenced by the social realist movement as a young man, he joined the staff of The Graphic, a social reform weekly dedicated to the idea that visual images could help alter public opinion. In other words, if people saw the plight of the downtrodden, they might be more willing to support charities that helped them.

The 26-year-old Fildes provided black and white illustrations of London’s poor. His drawing of people lined up to spend the night in a shelter inspired Charles Dickens to commission Fildes to illustrate his final (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Edward_VII_in_coronation_robesFildes left The Graphic after a year to work on his oil painting full time. In stark contrast with his dark depictions of London’s slums, he turned his attention to romanticized scenes of life in Venice, joining a group of artists loosely referred to as the Neo-Venetian school. Fildes also painted numerous portraits, including the young woman with a pen.

Edward VII knighted Fildes in 1906. Was it because the king really liked the artist’s well-known portrait of him in full coronation robes? Always flatter the monarch.

For your own writing needs, you can find Fildes’ charming painting — as well as other Ladies with Letters images — on cards and other products at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle. 

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Mysterious Wee Envelope

July 15, 1847 envelope July 15, 1847 envelope back

Before eBay was born, I occasionally bid by fax for assorted lots in long distance auctions. I don’t remember what I was trying to purchase, but in one grab bag of ephemera, I received this tiny envelope with elegant blue piping and a curved flap. Postmarked on July 15, 1847 in Bristol, it’s a testament to Victorian England’s postmen, who delivered it to Swansea the following day (exactly 167 years ago today).

Sent to Mr. John Morris on Gower Street, the envelope had long since lost whatever letter it contained. The seal on the back was also missing, as was the stamp. Or so I thought at first glance.

Penny BlackOn closer inspection, I saw that someone had penned the word “Paid” in the upper right corner where one usually affixed a stamp. This puzzles me. England introduced the world’s first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black, in 1840. Realizing that black was not the best color for a stamp  — how would you see the cancellation marks?  —  the post office switched to brick red stamps the following year. So the mystery is, if postage stamps had been used for the last seven years, why was the envelope simply inscribed Paid?

Sorry, I’m not going to answer that question because I simply don’t know, but if any reader does, I would appreciate a comment.

tiny envelopeThe other thing that strikes me is the envelope’s size, approximately that of a modern day business card. My wee envelope seems better scaled to an invitation to a doll’s tea party than to a letter mailed to Mr. Morris. Were many envelopes that small in the past? Note the size compared to modern day stamps.

Actually, the envelope is just the right size for my cat. And now that I think about it, Morris was the name of the ginger cat that starred in all those 9 Lives TV commercials…

tiny envelope with cat

One More Story

letter022When I was 21, I relocated thousands of miles and one hemisphere away to Australia. As soon as I learned where I would teach for the next two years, I sent my parents the school address so that they could write to me, even before I found a flat of my own. Of course, by “they” I mean my mother, who dutifully began her first aerogramme as soon as she knew where to send it.

with KualaAll old letters are time capsules, but this one is especially poignant. It captures a turning point between my childhood, with Mom talking about life at the house where I grew up, and my transition into adulthood. Not only was I making my own living, but I also had traveled to the other side of the world.

Everything around me was new, from the accents to the food to the Southern Cross in the night sky. My students ordered meat pies and pasties for lunch, cars drove on the “wrong” side of the road, and even the meanings of words changed so that a sweater was called a jumper and jumpers were called tunics.

MomMy mother’s letter to this looking glass world carried the reassurance of everyday news from home: mowing the overgrown lawn, “Dad and I finally manicured that wheat field around the house…”; buying her first pair of cowboy boots; and the vivid fuchsia of the bougainvillea spilling over our wall.

However, Mom also told me about meeting Sam Spade’s doppelganger at the department store where she managed the cosmetics counter: “I waited on a man who was a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart, looks, voice, speech, and even stoop-shouldered a little. I told him this and he said he didn’t ever admit this to anyone but that in the 1950s when Bogey was so ill a friend of his got him a job as a stand-in. He worked in The Caine Mutiny, The African Queen, and another one with him.”

Strangely, I didn’t remember that anecdote about Bogart’s stand-in, so reading it decades later was like hearing something new from my mother, who has been gone almost three years now. That’s the magic of snail mail — Mom can still share one more story.

Stamp Ball Mystery

StampBallThe mystery is not what this is.
It’s a 600-pound ball of stamps that measures 32 inches in diameter.

Nor is the mystery the number of stamps in it.
Reportedly 4,655,000 in one solid — not hollow — ball. All cancelled.

The mystery is not its location.
It’s the centerpiece of the Leon Myers Stamp Center at Boys Town in Nebraska, the child care agency founded by Father Flanagan, whom Spencer Tracy personified in a 1938 film.

And there’s no mystery about who made it.
That would be the members of the Boys Town Stamp Collecting Club who began in 1953 and finished in 1955. Apparently, they had a lot of time for hobbies.

No, ultimately, the mystery for me is WHY they devoted two years to layering over four million stamps into Planet Postage. I guess it’s a more lasting result than if they had spent their time playing Parcheesi or Capture the Flag.

Film Friday: Mail Order Bride


Nice promo shot, but the movie has no mail bags.

Made for the Hallmark Channel, this TV western is not the best movie imaginable about letters, brides or the West, but it is ABOUT letters, brides and the West, so if you really need a postal fix… The film opens on handsome cowboy Beau Canfield (Cameron Bancroft), reading a letter on horseback. Dear Beau, As for all those questions of yours: Yes, I can swim; yes, I can bait a hook. Did I tell you I can toss a blueberry in the air and catch it in my mouth? And yes, I will be your bride… Alas, his correspondent, Jenn, is dying of tuberculosis, so when her con artist friend Diana (Daphne Zuniga) needs to get out of town fast, Jenn hands Diana the letters and says, “Take these and go; be my second chance.” Diana hightails it to Beau’s small ranch in Wyoming, and a somewhat predictable plot of bad guys, range wars and redemption follows. But the lush high country scenery is breathtaking, and Diana does catch blueberries in her mouth while pretending to be Jenn. Film Friday: If you see it, let us know what you think of Mail Order Bride.

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