Drop Me a Line: Hand-writing letters in the modern world

Maureen Wolff  |  Editor-in-Chief

According to Statistic Brain Research institute, 141 billion letters were mailed in the US last year. This may seem like a significant amount, but this number represents a 47 percent decline since 1990. Bills are still managing to find their way through the mail, making me wonder whether a decrease in handwritten correspondence is to blame here.

As a print journalist, I am used to the shaking heads, the exclamations of “print is dead!” But I must admit to a certain attachment to the feel of paper fibers between my fingers, to scratched-out words, sloppy handwriting and Christmas postage stamps. There is a thoughtfulness, a humanity, an art of words that an E-Card could not capture. When thinking of letter-writing, I always picture Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, tacitly bent over paper in the corner writing his long, eloquent letters. It makes me wonder what happened from then to now.

As letter traffic declined, postage rates soared, with the United States Postal Service reporting an increase from 33 to 49 cents between 1999 and 2014. Email, on the other hand, is free, faster, saves paper and can’t get lost in a stack of discarded bill envelopes and catalogues. More emails are sent every day than letters are sent in a year. The research firm The Radicati Group estimates that about 205 billion emails are sent and received daily, with approximately 122 business emails sent per business user daily.

I’m not suggesting that business offices toss their computers out the window and turn exclusively to dozens of messages written with paper and ink. Based on the speed at which the industrialized modern world works, it would be unrealistic to give up email and text.

However, many influential thinkers of today have found value in the preservation of handwritten letters. Simon Garfield, author of “To the Letter: a Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing,” writes that “Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history.”

Hannah Brencher, host of a 2012 Ted Talk, found relief from depression in writing love letters for strangers. Brencher later founded a movement called The World Needs More Love Letters, an organization that compiles and mails letters to suffering individuals.

While letters may not claim much cultural relevance today, a handwritten note demonstrates an intentional setting aside of time for the recipient. Not all messages can wait a day, or two, or three to arrive. But the handwritten words that can wear a little time can become physical keepsakes in a way that digitized communication never could.

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