Decline of handwritten letters challenges Postal Service, historians

Monday, October 3, 2011 | 8:05 a.m. CDT; updated 11:11 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 3, 2011

WASHINGTON — If Mark Twain were alive today, would he tweet, "OMG, reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, LOL"?

When Twain did read his premature obituary, he sent a letter assuring friends the report was overblown.

But when was the last time you got a personal letter in the mail? If you live in a typical American household, it's probably been a while.

According to the Postal Service's annual survey, the average household gets one personal letter about every seven weeks. It was a letter about every two weeks in 1987.

While many people write notes in the holiday and birthday cards they send, the post office doesn't include those in the letter category. Holiday and other greeting cards, as well as written invitations, have also gone down.

The Postal Service said this trend is "primarily driven by the adoption of the Internet as a preferred method of communication."

The loss of that lucrative first-class mail is just one part of the agency's financial troubles, along with payment of bills via Internet and a decline in other mail. The Postal Service is facing losses of up to $8 billion this year.

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

"One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don't have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma's letters," said Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University.

"Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents" and letters, he said. "Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people's mail."

"Handwriting is an aspect of people's identity," he added. "Back in the day, when you wrote a letter, it was to that one person, so people said very intimate things." Today, with things such as Facebook being more public, people may not say as much, he said. And while some people are open in what they email, "it's a very different kind of sharing."

"There are indeed many ways that a decline in letter-writing will affect future historians, as many people in my profession have certainly benefited from the insights that written missives provide into how people of the past thought and felt," added history professor Jeffrey Nathan Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine.

"Personally, I don't get or send many letters — at least not carefully composed ones," he added.

Wasserstrom still turns to them as a source for his research. "I expect to make a lot of use of letters written by people held hostage in Beijing in the summer of 1900 in my upcoming book on the Boxer Crisis," he said.

Historian Kerby Miller of MU said friends "who have done research on immigrants of the last 10 to 20 years say that the letters were used as late as the 1950s and '60s, being replaced by long-distance phone calls and emails."

Any subject that relies on correspondence — culture, manners, husbands and wives, lovers, friends, brothers, historical business, political history — could suffer a loss with the decline in letter-writing, Miller said.

Yet there could be some benefit, he said.

"Many of us used to always feel guilty because we never wrote enough — remember all those letters from mom and dad? Well, if mom and dad have a computer, it's much easier to dash off a note every day or so," he said. "So maybe all the consequences aren't going to be completely negative. Maybe a vast load of guilt will be lifted from the shoulders of the American people."

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said future historians will be turning to email, as journalists already are doing.

"Email is different from letters, but it is comparable. It is more easily searchable," he said, "but we will have to learn how to use it."

People speak differently in email. "Some people are more candid," Grossman said. "Email is kind of a cross between a phone conversation and letters."

There might even be more information available in the future because organizations and governments preserve email, he said, and one of the highest priorities of archivists is working on procedures and standards for preservation.

"Clearly people say things that are both eloquent and straightforward in the email, and that's the same as letter," Grossman said. "Some people wrote letters with the assumption their mail would be read by posterity ... others with no idea that the person they wrote to would save them, much less give them to an archive."

While the loss of the personal letter may be a threat, at least some of its functions will live digitally.

Still, it's hard to imagine poet Robert Browning imploring Elizabeth Barrett to be his BFF.

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