The vanishing art of letter writing

Feb 13, 2015 | 6 comments |

When did you last write a letter? Or, a word I learned from, 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). 



  1. Sue Bavin

    What a lovely subject for a blog post. Emails are quick and convenient, but they can’t match a letter for the pleasure it gives.

    Although I don’t write as many letters as I used to, I am still a letter-writer. I write to my elderly aunt – she loves to receive a letter because it can be read and enjoyed lots of times. I also popped letters inside a couple of birthday cards recently. And yes, I really do hand-write letters to go inside Christmas cards (not all of them, I hasten to add). Sorry – do I sound smug?

    I love the idea of the book of sample letters. What an interesting way to find out about social history. I have a book of old problem page letters that I love for the same reason.

    I’m off now to stick a pin in myself so the smugness can deflate….

    • Jen Gilroy

      No smugness at all, Sue. I’m wondering if authors are more prone to letter writing than the population at large? I treasure the handwritten letters I receive for, as you said, they can be read and enjoyed many times, even years after they were first written.

      I’m intrigued by your book of ‘problem page letters.’ It sounds like a companion to my book of sample letters. I also have a book of ‘good manners for all occasions.’

      All these reference guides are a product of a much earlier time. Sometimes I wonder why I write contemporary, and not historical romance!

      Thanks for supporting my blog and commenting.

  2. Heidi

    Your most recent blog post really resonated with me. I mourn the decline of letter-writing in society at large, as I believe it is becoming a lost art.

    Putting pen to paper forces me to slow myself down, to choose my words carefully and forges a connection between the intended recipient and myself. It can be a real labour of love.

    I prefer to write letters to family and friends, for somehow, it seems like more of a lasting investment than just typing up a quick message and pressing “send”.

    • Jen Gilroy

      Letter writing as ‘a real labour of love’ is a beautiful thought, Heidi, and something I hadn’t considered. I cherish the letters I’ve received and often re-read them for that connection between the writer and myself. The memories too.

      I’m glad my post resonated with you. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Nicola

    The last letter I wrote was quite recently, when I replied to a bundle of letters from a class of children at my last school. In addition to this I received a letter from an older family member and responded to her ‘long hand’. I must admit receiving letters (and not bills) makes my heart race and giving that feeling back to the sender gives me even more joy. Like you say, Jen, letter correspondance/communication holds a special kind of sentiment and I often re-read letters received – unlike email, which doesn’t give one quite the same kind of buzz. Thank you for your thought provoking post. It’s always a pleasure to read your blog 🙂 Have a lovely week.

    • Jen Gilroy

      Thank you for your kind comments about my blog, Nicola. I enjoy reading your blog too (and missed it when you were offline for a few weeks).

      I’m sure the children appreciated your letter, and I share your feeling of excitement when I see a ‘real’ letter come through the letterbox. Perhaps because handwritten letters are now more rare, that makes them even more precious. I sometimes wonder, though, how future historians will make sense of the history of everyday life unless digital records are saved in the way that letters once were.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.


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