When I went to the post office today, I was assailed by a group of young folk wearing skinny jeans and beatnik glasses. They looked quite fashionable, and they had a bag of letters to post. They told me that they had been following our blog and had found it most instructive. Prior to this, I had been feeling quite depressed and unmotivated to add to this compedium of model letters – I just wasn’t sure if anyone was actually reading it. Filled with new enthusiasm, I have compiled this list of questions to explain the history of letter writing, hoping to inspire others to take up this wondrous art.
How were letters delivered in the olden days?
In ancient civilizations, letters were delivered through messengers, who might be robbed, injured or killed on the way. Then for a long time, mail was only a tool of governments, militaries and kings. In the 6th century BC, the Persian Empire (now Iran) developed a relay system that went up to 100 miles a day; when horses got tired, they were traded for a fresh one. The Greeks, typically, employed athlete runners to deliver their mail – Philonides, courier and surveyer for Alexander the Great, once ran from Sicyon to Elis – 148 miles in a day. The Arabs had a system too – using pigeons. Caesar had a relay similar to the Persians, with stopping points – or ‘post houses’ – where couriers could rest and trade horses. But after the Roman Empire fell, the mail network collapsed, and so did organised communication throughout Europe.
When did letter writing really take off?
The reinvigoration of letter writing can be traced to the invention of the printing press, the increasing availability of books, a change in the outlook of religions, and rising literacy rates. Sweden, ahead as usual, achieved a 100% literacy rate in the 18th Century after the Lutheran Church ordered that everyone had to be able to read the word of God, not only pastors and priests as had previously been ordained in many Christian religions.
In England, between 1500 and 1900, literacy rates rose from 10 to 95% for men, and from less than 5% to 95% for women.
In 1870, compulsory education was introduced in Australia as a means of forging a penal colony to an organised society and helping combat ignorance, which was considered by government to be a contributor to high crime rates. Sounds like a good idea for the present time!
In the US, there was a religious injunction that believers must read the bible themselves, achieving a 100% literacy rate.
The letter writing manuals so fondly consulted by myself and Miss Beeton started coming out 1750-1800, with 400 such works in the US alone.
Until this point, it was assumed that only men wrote letters. But from the mid to 18th century, gender division of letter writing began to be questioned publicly.
In 1763, the Ladies Complete Letter Writer was published. Later this month, readers, I will be sharing a letter on the Amusements of the Female Sex. I will also be analysing the respective contents of Ladies’ as opposed to Gentlemen’s letter writing manuals.
Letter writing was an important part of childhood instruction in England and America.
In 1860, the post office was invented, and then it really took off.
What about typewriters, and where were women in all this?
In 1868, the typewriter was invented, and in 1873, the first Remingtons were on the market. Mark Twain (author of Huckleberry Finn and many fine non-fiction essays) bought one of the first models, in 1874, and was the first author to submit a manuscript typed on one. But early users were generally stenographers and typists, and most of them were women. These were some of the first women to enter the office, and the workplace became more sexually chanrged. In 1892 in Atlantic City, two high profile court cases were fought over men who married their ‘typewriters’ – their relatives tried to argue that they were not of sound mind when they entered into a relationship.
So what’s a Dead Letter Office?
This was where all the misdirected mail ended up. The staff weren’t actually dead, but a few dead things did show up in the mail sometimes, as well as some live things.
A report in 1874 revealed that among the curios to turn up in the DLO were a horned frog (alive), a still squirming stage beatle, white mice, snails, an owl, a kingfisher, a rat, carving knives, a fork, a gun, and cartridges.
So what’s happening with letters these days? Are they in decline?
Most letters we get these days are either from business or government – they are requests (or demands) for money or requests for favours. Sometimes the Greens put fliers in the mail. Truly personal letters are in decline. I promise to provide more detailed information about this lamentable state of affairs at a later date.