Dear Reader: Letter writing is dead. Love, Jake.
For the past few weeks, hundreds of people have flocked to the Historic Deerfield museum in Massachusetts to partake in what curators have deemed a dying art.
In the same building where visitors study ancient archaeology and the American piano before Steinway, instructors are teaching another craft that seems to be heading in a similar direction: writing letters.
Amanda Rivera Lopez, the museum’s director of education and interpretation, says Historic Deerfield has been teaching fundamentals as elementary as the use of the pen, written alphabets and folding letters into an envelope.
The inclusion of letter writing in a museum is a bad sign for the well-crafted long-form letter, whether it’s typed or handwritten.
“Personal correspondence has died,” says Sue Brennan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service.
Advocates argue that the loss of traditional mail means losing a palpable connection to our past; history was written in personal letters kept for generations by both the famous and the anonymous. And while e-mail might be cheaper, easier and more efficient, they say, it loses the soul and gentility of a classic letter.
The Postal Service doesn’t keep track of how many personal letters are sent every year, but overall snail-mail volume in the United States has dropped to its lowest level since 1964, when the U.S. population was estimated at 192 million, Brennan says. The population is now an estimated 306 million.
Businesses still write formal letters that are delivered via e-mail and sometimes even by slapping a stamp on an envelope and sending it out the door. But electronic mail is king, and a generation has never known anything else.
“There are children who are 10 to 12 who don’t know how to address an envelope,” says Faith Deering, 61, who runs Historic Deerfield’s letter-writing symposium.
Some, she says, don’t even know where to put a stamp.
There are still correspondents who take pride in a well-crafted letter, none more prominent than President Barack Obama. He may cling to his BlackBerry, but Obama also answers some personal letters by hand.
Even with such a high-profile role model, however, letter traditionalists know they are a vanishing breed.
“People just don’t write letters anymore,” says Douglas Mann, a Florida resident who has owned an online business writing letters for people since 2000.
Mann’s business is “not the boon” he expected it to be when he started the service after retiring. He is down from $4,000 a year in profit to almost nothing, he says.
The Postal Service says it has delivered 9.3 percent fewer pieces of mail in the first quarter this year than it did in the same quarter of 2008. To help stem losses, the USPS will raise the cost of a first-class stamp, the postage used for most personal mail, up 2 cents to 44 cents on May 11.
“We lose $20 million each day,” Brennan says.
Sarah Hernandez, who works at a stationery store called Paper Boy in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, says customized cards and wedding announcements still sell at the mom-and-pop shop, but not as many people buy stationery. Hernandez is only 25, but she still prefers the personal touch of a handwritten note. On a recent morning when contacted by a reporter, Hernandez said she had just sent a thank-you note to her grandmother. The mailed note has much more staying power than an e-mail does, she said. “If I want to thank someone, I won’t do it via e-mail.”
But Hernandez is an aberration for her generation.
“Our young people are writing more than ever before with their texting and e-mails, but the structure and punctuation and grammar are just a disaster,” says Robert Stevens, the owner of WriteExpress, a letter-writing business based in Highland, Utah.
The immediacy of online communication has stymied what was once a laborious and thoughtful art, he says. When a person received a note—handwritten or not—it showed that the writer cared, that he or she took the time.
Deering, from the Historic Deerfield museum, says she still writes letters to former colleagues at the Smithsonian in Washington. She called the experience “visceral” and much more fulfilling than shooting off an e-mail or even making a phone call. It’s like a long, thoughtful conversation, she says.
“We will lose a lot of things when the letter begins to go,” Deering says. “I sit with the adults who come to the museum, and their own stories come out, and they remember how much fun it was to go to the mailbox and find a letter and open it up.”
Deering says that people have been flocking to her letter-writing demonstration because they miss the art of mailed communication. With the hundreds of people who have come, stories have emerged. There was one man who was dragged by his wife, who, once he was there, showed off the impeccable cursive he learned as a boy in Catholic school but has used seldom since. With a metal-tipped pen he wrote, “Thank you to sisters of St. Josephine’s.”
Mann, the once hopeful letter-writing businessman, also has a story to share. He says he comes from another generation, one that valued the intimacy of human, long-form correspondence. His wife, separated from her family in England for many years, kept in touch with her parents by notes they sent back and forth to each other in the mail. From time to time, they pull out the box and reminisce.
Although his business has essentially failed, Mann holds out hope, not for himself but for the future of classic communication.
“Things change, technology changes and nobody knows what happens tomorrow,” he says. “But I bet people will get tired of all of this electronic sending in abbreviated form. They just have to.”