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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: People Used To Write Long Letters to Each Other

January 29, 2023
(image via wikimedia)

I found a bunch of long letters when I was going through some boxes a few days ago. The letters were mixed up with a bunch of old photographs that I’d been looking for and were a pleasant surprise.

Several letters were written by my parents in the 1990s. I found a 1987 letter from my Nan with a check for $10. Back in 1987, I could have bought a bunch of comic books with that $10. Nan passed away in 1997, so it’s probably not a good idea to try to cash the check. Instead, I’ll frame it, kind of like how some business owners frame the first dollar that they earned.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure Nan needed that $10 more than I did, even back in 1987.

One letter was from a college girlfriend who wrote to me a year after we’d graduated.

The ex-girlfriend (it was a rough break-up) wrote me a four-page letter, rambling about how she had moved out to California with her new boyfriend and he was treating her like crap, and she was unhappy. No wonder I’d kept the letter. I remember that when I received that letter back in 1990, I was struggling badly in my first year of teaching. I was wondering if I’d wasted my college years preparing for a career that I hated. Then I got this letter, and it made me feel better.

Thank you, unhappy ex-girlfriend.

I also found a couple letters from my best friend in high school. He was a decent artist who didn’t do anything commercial with his talents, but his letters were filled with doodles that humorously made his point. It’s the type of letter that would be difficult to replicate on a text or email. People thought that this guy was kind of boring, but his letters were really funny. If he had been able to speak in ‘cartoon’ like he could write, then more people would have paid attention to him.

I found several letters written by my mom (I guess those are more important to me than the cartoon doodle-letters and ex-girlfriend whining). They were usually a page or two and not as interesting as the letter written by my ex-girlfriend. These were early 1990s, just before access to the internet and the use of email became common. Once my mom got an email account, she stopped writing long letters.

I’d forgotten that people used to write long letters to each other. That’s somethings that’s kind of tough to explain to younger people who might not see the point. When I mentioned finding the old letters and the emotions that I felt from discovering and reading them, some younger co-workers just gave me blank stares in a ‘that’s nice’ kind of way. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh yeah, they’ve probably never written long letters before.’

Way back in the previous millennium, writing a long letter to a friend or family member was pretty common, maybe even expected. And it wasn’t just famous authors like C.S. Lewis, artists like Vincent Van Gogh, or even political figures like Martin Luther King Jr. writing letters. Normal people wrote letters to each other. I have the proof. Maybe it’s not as much proof as I’d like to have, but I still have proof.

I think people wrote long letters in the previous millennium because you couldn’t really talk to anybody who lived far away. Even with landline telephones, long-distance calls used to be really expensive until about 20(?) years ago. Calling people outside your area used to be really expensive, especially during weekday hours.

Expensive long-distance phone calls are probably even more difficult to explain than writing long letters. People used to wait until weeknights and weekends to make long-distance calls because phone rates were so outrageous back then. It was just cheaper to write a letter and send it in the mail. Yeah, the post office might lose it (some things don’t change), but it was worth the risk.

And don’t get me started about what things were like before the telephone; I wasn’t around back then (that would be a REALLY old thing that’s tough to explain).

With cell phones, long-distance calls are no longer an issue (the phone itself is the expensive product instead). Now email and texts are instantaneous, and phone calls are cheap. There’s not much reason to write a long letter, unless it’s for the permanence. But I guess communication is seen as disposable now.

Just so you know, not EVERYONE enjoyed writing long letters. Famous author Ernest Hemingway admitted that he was bad at writing letters because he was usually tired from writing other stuff. Maybe he should have written his personal letters first. But then he might not have written so many famous books. When he was looking back over his life, I wonder if he regretted not writing all those personal letters that he could have written but didn’t. Did he think he had made the wrong choice? Probably not.

Even though I’ve never written long letters just for the sake of communication, I’ve always written great ‘thank you’ notes. When I was a kid, I took pride in writing more than the standard two-sentence ‘thank you’ letter. I made sure to write a full page, and I didn’t even have big hand writing. I told the gift-giver everything that was going on with my life (I was a kid in the 1970s; there was nothing going on). I probably even made up details just to get to a full page.

Even today, if I get a gift, I’ll buy a ‘thank you’ card and fill up the spaces with blather. I’m not sure if anybody reads the long notes that I write, but at least I give the gift-giver the option of reading about the mundane goings-on in my life. So if you want a long letter from me, just send me a cool gift.

I understand why people don’t write long letters anymore, though. It’s easier just to talk or text. I like writing more than I like talking, but I’d still rather have a short phone conversation than write a letter. To me, talking is work, and writing is kind of fun. If an introvert like me would rather have a short conversation on the phone instead of writing a long letter, what chance do long letters have?

I probably should start writing letters to people that I care about, just so that each person has ONE heartfelt message that can’t get deleted on a computer or other device. I don’t think I’ll write a letter to my ex-girlfriend, though. I’m sure she’s moved since 1991.

  1. If young people can’t see how holding something tactile in their hands is important then something is wrong with their fucked up, re-wired brains.

    • There does seem to be some rewiring (just like I think there was in the 1950s and 1960s and…), but it’s not their fault… and that’s a whooooolllllle other topic.

  2. Anonymous permalink

    Lost art…like conversation

  3. I have letters my mother and grandparents wrote to each other. They are more precious than anything. And i owe someone a thank you letter. Thanks for reminding me

  4. I hate writing thank you notes. I theoretically understand the importance, but they just seem tedious.

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