Looking back at Letter Writing

A column in The Hartford Courant discussing the decline of letter writing in the U.S. blames “this age of quick communication and rapid transportation.” While this is by no means surprising, the date of the newspaper article might be: Oct. 2, 1938! Yes, even 80 years ago, the art of letter writing was seen to be on the decline and that decline was mostly blamed on technology. In order to encourage the letter writing, the Post Office Department (now the U.S. Postal Service) sponsored its first National Letter Writing Week in 1938, and followed with a second such celebration the week of Oct. 1-7, 1939. My curiosity about this was sparked by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) poster I came across one day (below), showing a busy letter carrier during this special week.

National letter writing week, Oct. 1-7 That letter will be appreciated. Silkscreen poster by Illinois WPA Art Project, [between 1936 and 1940]. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b48755

National letter writing week, Oct. 1-7 That letter will be appreciated. Silkscreen poster by Illinois WPA Art Project, [between 1936 and 1940]. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b48755

What was true then, is true now: “That letter will be appreciated”! In anticipation of the event, the Sept. 25, 1939 New York Herald Tribune shared: “Not content with carrying merely bills and business correspondence, advertising matter and catalogues, the Post Office believes it should be allowed to deliver more joyful and cheerful letters to mothers and fathers, absent friends, newlyweds and those having birthdays and anniversaries.”

The thought of all those friendly letters making their way around the country inspired me to dig through our collections for images of people writing – and reading – letters over the years. Explore the following array of images from different walks of life and time periods, all united by one thing – a letter!

Puck's midsummer medley. Chromolithograph by S. D. Ehrhart. Published in Puck, v. 54, no. 1381 (1903 August 19). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25770

Puck’s midsummer medley. Chromolithograph by S. D. Ehrhart. Published in Puck, v. 54, no. 1381 (1903 August 19). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25770

Brooklyn, New York. Mrs. R. Drewes reading a letter from her grandson in overseas service to Mrs. A. Laemmel at a Red Cross meeting at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, 1944 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d35895

Brooklyn, New York. Mrs. R. Drewes reading a letter from her grandson in overseas service to Mrs. A. Laemmel at a Red Cross meeting at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, 1944 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d35895

Unidentified soldier in kepi with letter and envelope. Tintype, hand-colored, between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32285

Unidentified soldier in kepi with letter and envelope. Tintype, hand-colored, between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32285

Two unidentified women reading letters. Ambrotype, hand-colored, between 1860 and 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36461

Two unidentified women reading letters. Ambrotype, hand-colored, between 1860 and 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36461

Woman at desk with pile of mail. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1931. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36635

Woman at desk with pile of mail. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1931. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36635

[Girl reading a letter]. Engraving by Jean-Baptiste Huet, between 1770 and 1776. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.07140

[Girl reading a letter]. Engraving by Jean-Baptiste Huet, between 1770 and 1776. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.07140

Fumiyomu onna. Title Translation: Woman reading a letter. Color woodcut by Utamoro Kitagawa, 1780s, printed later. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.02055

Fumiyomu onna. Title Translation: Woman reading a letter. Color woodcut by Utamoro Kitagawa, 1780s, printed later. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.02055

Red Cross Club for American Nurses in London, the Writing Room. Since the club was started, in June 1917, eighteen thousand letters have been written home from this room. The window looks straight out over a narrow balcony into the grounds of the Buckingham Palace. Photo, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09921

Red Cross Club for American Nurses in London, the Writing Room. Since the club was started, in June 1917, eighteen thousand letters have been written home from this room. The window looks straight out over a narrow balcony into the grounds of the Buckingham Palace. Photo, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09921

West Danville, Vermont. Frank Goss, seventy-one year old farmer, in front of Gilbert S. Hastings's general store and post office reading his mail, which includes a postcard saying that his last year's hired man "won't be around for haying this year on account of he's in Californi' in the Navy". Photo by Fritz Henle, 1942 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d36046

West Danville, Vermont. Frank Goss, seventy-one year old farmer, in front of Gilbert S. Hastings’s general store and post office reading his mail, which includes a postcard saying that his last year’s hired man “won’t be around for haying this year on account of he’s in Californi’ in the Navy”. Photo by Fritz Henle, 1942 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d36046

A Letter Home. A representative of the American Red Cross Home Communication Service writing a letter for a wounded American soldier who did not feel equal to the task. Photo, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1918 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09129

A Letter Home. A representative of the American Red Cross Home Communication Service writing a letter for a wounded American soldier who did not feel equal to the task. Photo, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1918 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09129

Boy Scouts at Hunter's Island. Writing to the folks at home. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, copyrighted 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c07478

Boy Scouts at Hunter’s Island. Writing to the folks at home. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, copyrighted 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c07478

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (vicinity). Montour no. 4 mine of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. Jo Patenesky, miner, reading a letter from his son who is in the Army. Photo by John Collier, 1942 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d11025

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (vicinity). Montour no. 4 mine of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. Jo Patenesky, miner, reading a letter from his son who is in the Army. Photo by John Collier, 1942 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d11025

Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman College. Student in the girls' dormitory writing a letter to her boyfriend, who is serving in the U.S. Army. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1943 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d13716

Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman College. Student in the girls’ dormitory writing a letter to her boyfriend, who is serving in the U.S. Army. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1943 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d13716

Greenville, South Carolina. Air Service Command. Writing a letter home. Photo by Jack Delano, 1943 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d32040

Greenville, South Carolina. Air Service Command. Writing a letter home. Photo by Jack Delano, 1943 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d32040

Washington, D.C. Lynn Massman, wife of a second class petty officer who is studying in Washington, writing letters while her baby is having his afternoon nap. Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 Dec. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d41903

Washington, D.C. Lynn Massman, wife of a second class petty officer who is studying in Washington, writing letters while her baby is having his afternoon nap. Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 Dec. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d41903

I was longing. Photo by Tom. M. Phillips, copyrighted 1907. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c37995

I was longing. Photo by Tom. M. Phillips, copyrighted 1907. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c37995

The letter. Drypoint and aquatint by Mary Cassatt, 1890 or 1891. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10483

The letter. Drypoint and aquatint by Mary Cassatt, 1890 or 1891. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10483

I certainly feel like it would be a treat to receive a handwritten letter in the mail, so I better get busy writing. Perhaps all this visual inspiration will also prompt you to put pen to paper and write a letter this week!

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