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Forsaken Handwritten Letters

For the typical American household, nearly two months pass before a personalized letter sits in the mailbox among the usual catalogs and bills.

When considering the environmental drawback and informational delay linked to snail mail, sentimentality has taken a backseat to practicality. Passing doodled notes in class is riskier than a sneaky text message. Mailing love letters is far slower than a Skype or email to appease distanced relationships. And casual how’s-it-going-letters have been replaced by phone calls and pretty much everything online.

Still, there’s something irreplaceable about the pleasantly surprising handwritten letter. But from 2007 to 2013 alone, there’s been a 21 percent decrease in letter volume.

Imagine Virginia Woolf’s horror today, when in the 1940s she already mourned the decline of letter-writing in her essay, The Humane Art: “News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private.” Nothing seems quite as rousingly secretive as a personalized note sealed in an envelope, federal law even protecting its content from unwarranted eyes. “The letter writer… speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private,” she wrote—a concept that resonates in the era of mega-phonic tweets and too-revealing status updates.

Statistics, however, show this old-school deed is quickly going out of practice. One in five children in the UK has never received a handwritten letter, and one in ten has never written a letter themselves. And in the US, 150 billion letters are mailed annually, which may seem impressive until it’s compared to the 250 billion emails and 4 billion social-media messages sent daily.

The keyboard is quickly retiring the pen—a trend only solidified when considering the slow extinction of cursive. But when typed on a screen, our words seem slightly stripped of character, whether displayed in a quirky font or Times New Roman. Personalized penmanship, on the other hand, allows more individuality and ownership to seep through the message. A recent study showed there are also psychological benefits to taking a few minutes a week to write mere “thank you” notes. Two groups, each consisting of roughly 110 undergraduate students, filled out questionnaires concerning their well-being and general happiness. When one group was asked to write three letters of gratitude within a few weeks, they later reported significant improvement in overall satisfaction and happiness, whereas the other group—those who weren’t asked to write letters—returned feeling the same.

Psychological studies and statistics aside: Knowing that time and effort has been put forth in a handwritten letter makes it a memorable keepsake, something we’re more willing to hold on to.

Twenty-five years ago, The Utne Reader made a similar case. “Letters are acts of faith, because in a letter I disclose myself; I open my heart, trusting that the other will read and respond likewise with an open heart,” Robert Epstein wrote in a piece excerpted from East West. “Letters are seeds planted in an open heart that may one day grow into tall trees. And like trees, a sturdy letter can last a lifetime.”

Somehow a tucked-away box filled with letters still seems sturdier and simpler than a hard drive or the web—certainly more intimate.

Click to hear an NPR interview with avid letter-writers.

Image by dawgbyte77, licensed under Creative Commons.