When did you last write a letter? Or, a word I learned from Dictionary.com, when did you last epistolize?
I’m not talking about sending an email, tapping out a text or posting on Facebook. When did you last put pen to paper and write a letter to a friend or family member?
As historians and archivists attest, letters are a powerful record of social history. What people wrote about can tell us much about times past.
I was reminded of how letters were once integral to everyday life during my recent trip to Canada. In a box of old family papers, I found a treasure trove of letters.
Spidery, old-fashioned handwriting on sheets of gossamer-thin paper recorded marriages and births, deaths and estate matters, and surprisingly modern troubles too – economic uncertainty, family difficulties and worries over children and elderly relatives. In a time before the telephone, Internet and social media, those letters stretched bonds of family and friendship across the vast North American continent.
I also found a book devoted to the art of letter writing. Frost’s Original Letter-Writer (1867) offered readers “plain directions about everything connected with writing a letter,” and included 300 sample letters and notes covering every conceivable situation where a letter would be required.
From letters of introduction to letters answering advertisements, to letters of love, friendship and other relationships, letters of invitation and condolence, Frost’s guide brings to life a time that now can hardly be imagined. It was a time when a gentleman wrote a letter asking a lady’s permission to call, or to request a lock of her hair. A time when a young lady wrote a letter to a friend who’d slandered her, or a letter of consolation to a friend who’d lost a ship at sea.
A quick (and unscientific) survey suggests I’m not alone in admitting the last personal letter I wrote was a Christmas thank you note.
So instead of sending a text or email this Valentine’s Day, why not send that special someone a handwritten letter instead? As Frost exhorted almost 150 years ago: “Love letters written in sincerity and faith need but little guidance except from the heart of the writer” (p.19).
Romance writer or not, writing from the heart is as good advice now as it was in Frost’s day.
Find out more
Frost, S.A. (1867) Frost’s Original Letter Writer New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, digital collection).