About letters and letter writing
Letters are often thought of as a more personal form of communication than emails, texts or instant messaging.
In the past, letter writing was a major method of communication between people, and therefore has a vast and interesting history. Without letters we would not know as much about the past or the people who lived before us.
Friendly or formal?
There are many different types of letters, but most of them fall into one of two categories, personal (friendly) or business (formal):
Personal letters can include letters to and from family or friends, letters to or from pen pals, thank you letters or Christmas letters. They can be written in a relaxed or conversational tone and there are not really any strict rules about the type of language used in these letters (obviously you want to write kind things though).
Business letters include job applications, referrals, references, formal letters of appreciation or thanks, or letters to politicians about community issues. The language used in business letters is more formal than in a personal letter.
Letter writing – at what cost?
If you want to send a standard-sized letter, it's easy. Just write it, put it in an envelope, stick a stamp on it and put it in a post box.
But, it has not always been this easy.
Many years ago the cost of a letter was decided by the number of pages that had been written, and the person receiving the letter had to pay the postage costs.
This led to people devising some creative ways of keeping their letter size down.
Obviously, the smaller your handwriting, the more you could fit on one page.
Sometimes the writer would fill the page, then turn the paper and write in another direction. This was referred to as a "crossed" letter and used as much space on the paper as possible.
The world's shortest letter
In 1862, the novelist Victor Hugo famously wrote the world's shortest letter. It was written to his publisher to ask how his new book was selling. All he wrote in the letter was this: "?". His publisher simply replied: "!".
Funnily enough, the book he was asking about was over 1200 pages long!
Follow the rules
In the 1800s, during the Victorian era, it was believed that excellent letter writing skills were a sign of good breeding. Strict rules had to be observed when writing a letter.
When writing you must:
Have neat handwriting
Use elegant words
Know how to properly fold a letter
Sign your name to every letter
Use an acceptable ink colour (what colours do you think would have been acceptable?)
When writing you must not:
Include a postscript (PS)
Cross out or erase misspelled words; instead you must start all over again
Underline or abbreviate words.
How long do you think it would take you to write a letter if you had to observe these strict Victorian standards?
Some good advice from the past
Have you ever heard of Emily Post? Probably not.
She was an American author, born in the 19th century, who wrote about etiquette and manners. In one of her many books she offers some advice about written communication that seems very appropriate for today's society.
Emily warns against the "permanence of written emotion". She cautions that when something rude, nasty or impolite is written down and ends up in another person's hands it can never be taken back and you don't know who might end up seeing it.
Think about how this advice from the past can apply to texting, emailing and instant messaging. Thanks for the tip, Emily.
Mail delivery – Persian style
Long before the invention of vans and motorbikes to deliver mail, a clever relay system of horses was employed in the Persian Empire. The Persian messengers often rode for up to 160 kilometres in one day! This was too much for one poor horse, so there were trading posts set up along the route where the messenger could swap their horse for a new one.
Letters to the dead
In modern times, we think of a letter going between two living people. However, the Ancient Egyptians believed that communication was possible between the living and the dead. Letters to the dead have been found inscribed on bowls and buried in Egyptian tombs.
So what do you write in a letter to the dead? These letters were not just a chance to gossip or share information about current events; they often contained urgent requests for help. People thought that the dead could influence actions and events in the realm of the living. Very strange!
An understanding of history
Letters from the past help us to gain a better understanding of different historical periods and can reveal the personal and emotional sides of important world events.
Letters written by World War I and II soldiers provide an interesting and valuable insight into what it was like to be in a war situation, as well as into the feelings of loved ones left behind.
Letters from the famous physicist, Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt (a former President of the United States) reveal Einstein's fears about the development and use of nuclear weapons by Germany.
Will the increased use of texts and emails (which are often deleted) mean that in the future, important historical insights will be lost? What do you think?
Love letters have been written by people for centuries. Some of the most famous people you can think of wrote love letters. Past kings, queens, poets, scientists, musicians, movie stars and politicians have all written love letters.
Love letters reveal the personal lives of renowned, famous and often powerful people. Some famous love letters include:
Letters from Napoleon Bonaparte (a French military and political leader) to his beloved Josephine.
Letters from the famously talented pianist Beethoven were discovered after his death, but they contained no names or dates, so we still do not know whom they were for. A mystery indeed!
King Henry VIII (one of history's most famous kings) wrote many letters to his beloved Anne Boleyn (while he was still married to Queen Catherine of Aragon). Even though these letters were sweet and romantic it did not stop Henry from chopping off Anne's head after they were married. Poor Anne!
There have been many times throughout history (such as during wars) when letters have contained important information and have been written or delivered in secret, but did you know that letters often had to be hidden from family members too?
This may seem strange to us now, but in the Victorian era, husbands had the right to read their wife's personal mail. How unfair is that?
To outsmart their husbands, the women employed codes so that they could share secrets or private thoughts without being discovered and possibly punished.
The coded letters were called "cryptograms". The code had to be simple enough for the receiver to work it out, but also complex enough so the husband could not.
One example was a letter within a letter, where the receiver of the letter would read only every second line of the letter to get the coded message. This is a pretty difficult type of secret message, as the message and the letter as a whole both had to make sense.
Perhaps you could invent your own cryptogram.
Letters and literacy
You probably take your reading and writing skills for granted, but did you know that in the 16th century, as little as five to ten per cent of the English population were able to read? Can you imagine not being able to read a book or magazine, or write a letter, email or text?
The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg (in 1440), meant that books became more widely available and this led to an increase in literacy rates to about 95 per cent in the 20th century.
So how does this relate to letter writing? Well, as a result of this increase, letter writing became a much more popular form of communication and the number of letters being sent increased enormously.
Letters in the 21st century
Unfortunately, due to the popularity of texting, emails and the internet, not too many people take the time to write a letter any more. Because of this, much of what you might find in your letterbox at home is probably government or business-related. There might be political fliers, restaurant menus or advertisements. When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from someone?
So why write letters?
With the invention of texting, Twitter, Facebook, emails and all the other electronic forms of communication, you are probably thinking that handwritten letters are now a thing of the past. But, think about this... How do you feel when you receive a letter in the mail addressed to you? Do you have the same feeling when you get a text or email?
If you were away from your family and friends, what would mean more – a quick text or tweet, or a thoughtfully written letter that had been touched by a special person that might include a photo or a personal drawing, and could be signed off with a kiss?
If the act of letter writing disappears and is replaced by texts and emails how will future generations find out the personal stories of our time? Do you keep all your emails or text messages? Are you going to put them all in a box and store it away for future generations to find?
Handwritten letters are personal. They show the receiver that someone has spent time and effort in communicating with them. They contain secrets, thoughts and information that are precious and personal. They are a way of connecting two people that cannot be achieved through the impersonal use of texts or instant messages.
So, next time you really want to connect with someone you love, take the time to hand write a letter. It will be worth the effort.