Paper: $5, Pen: $2, Sending a Letter: Priceless

One of the greatest love stories ever written is about two lovers who are separated by class and disapproving parents. When they were torn apart, Noah Calhoun tried to bridge their distance by writing letters to his love, Allie. He wrote three hundred sixty-five letters. That is, he wrote her one letter every day for a year. To you that may sound like a lot of writing but to him it was worth it. Plus, there has always been something enchanting about a handwritten letter. Sadly, letter writing is on the endangered species list and is dangerously close to joining the extinction club. In this day and age, texting, email, blogging, Facebook and other various forms of technology are taking over. The irony is that many people admit they would like to find more personal mail mixed in with all the bills and junk mail (Olson). As technology has continued to rise, it has directly affected people’s ambition to pen a letter to a friend. To receive a handwritten letter in the mail is a rarity and the technology that has put instant communication at the tips of society’s fingers is slowly suffocating the endangered population of those who actually still do write letters. What would it take to resuscitate the art of letter writing? A better question might be will it ever be brought back to life? Or is it in danger of ceasing to exist, forever?

In the beginning days of the United States, when the Greats such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were walking the streets of Philadelphia, the only way to communicate over long distances was with hand-delivered notes. There was no instant messaging or texting. Imagine if there was: George: “Yo, Martha. Luv u babe! xoxox;” Ben: “L8 2 bed & erly 2 ? makes man healthy, $$$ & y’s.” It does not translate well. Franklin was named Post Master General by the Continental Congress in 1775. “The Founding Fathers viewed the mail system as vital to the political cohesion of [the] fledgling nation” (“United States and the Postal” 3). Leading up to the Boston Tea Party, there was a correspondence among coordinators via letters. Lewis and Clark sent letters back to capital on their westward exploration. This mail system was especially valuable during the Civil War because it allowed news of the battle(s) to spread quicker and more efficiently. What first started out as a postal worker delivering messages by foot soon required a means of delivering news over greater distances. Thus, the Pony Express was established in 1860 during the Civil War to communicate faster with the west (“History). The Pony Express consisted of men riding on horseback, with saddlebags full of mail, across a two thousand mile trail covering two hundred fifty miles in just one day (“History). The Pony Express grew to having more than one hundred stations, eighty riders, and more than five hundred horses (“History”). The route the riders took was extremely hazardous. Amazingly, only one piece of mail was ever lost. As cities began rising out of the fields and the population dispersed over even greater distances, the Pacific Telegraph company ended the need for the existence of the Pony Express and the railroad became a vital means of delivery for the mail (“History”). This eventually evolved to mailmen on foot hand delivering letters and packages to house boxes which eventually changed again to automobiles making the delivering of mail more efficient. “On a national scale, lucrative contracts for mail transportation spurred the development of the American transportation network—from stagecoach routes to railroads to airlines” (“United States and the Postal” 10).

In recent years, mail has even been delivered via airplane and missiles, by means that make the time separating the sender and the deliverer decrease by a drastic amount. Even with the increased speed of delivery, averaging three to five days for a letter from Maine to reach California, it is still not fast enough. People lack appreciation for how far the postal system has come from its days of origin. This disrespect and lack of use is resulting in people losing their jobs. In 1999 the United States Postal Service employed 797,795 employees; by 2011 there were only 557,251 employees working for the USPS (“Number of Postal”). What exactly has contributed to all these people becoming unemployed? In 2006 the USPS handled 213,137,700,000 pieces of mail—that is the highest in its history. In 2011, a mere five years later, only 167,934,000,000 pieces passed through the hands of workers (“Pieces of Mail”). “Between 2001 and 2007, the volume of First-Class Mail feel by more than [seven] percent, following decades of slowing growth” (“United States and the Postal” 20). For an institution that was supposed to be self-sufficient—meaning that its revenues should pay for its expenses—that is a drop too vast to compensate for (“United States and the Postal” 17). This decrease of utilization can be attributed to three simple aspects: the rise of technology, the business of society, and the view that the Postal System is a dying institution. The core service of the USPS is to deliver the mail (“United States and the Postal” 19). With no bills to deliver, due to “paperless (online) billing,” no correspondences between friends and family who live out of state, and no means of entertainment being sent—magazines are now available online— slowly, but surely, the very establishment that survived America through an internal war is becoming ghost of the past. “The Postal Service is an institution that reaches every American on a regular basis, and it does not discriminate. All Americans are entitled to receive the same service. It is irrelevant whether they are rich or poor, rural or urban, black or white, young or old; all Americans are equal in the eyes of the Postal Service” (“United States and the Postal” 12). It is one of the nation’s greatest treasures and the population is indebt to saving it. Long live the Postal Service!

With the increase of technology has come a lack of face-to-face communication. Why go over to a friend’s house and talk when one can just text or Instant Message him or her? Some people may say that all this technology mumbo-jumbo has made it easier to keep in touch with long distance friends and to communicate faster. However, the ability one has to send something out without really seeing the consequences is very dangerous. Being able to hide behind a computer and post something nasty gives people a false sense of confidence and superiority. More importantly, the relationships people share are not nearly as strong as they were “back in the day.” And why is that? It is because people do not take time to invest in memories that were shared together. Rather, they sit around the house with their cell phones in tow, texting up a storm to a friend. Their friendships are based entirely on the conversations they have through their cell phones. How fake is that? Writing letters required people to be honest with one another because a letter would take weeks, maybe even months, to reach the recipient and then the same amount of time for the sender to receive a response. They had to take full advantage of their limited abilities of communication because it was a rarity. Now, one can send a text out and receive a response within a minute. People take this for granted. Ultimately it depreciates the value of the conversation, relationship, and information shared (“Changing Methods of Communication” 34). Now this may be a generalization, but it is true for the majority of teens and high school students. Letters are a way to be vulnerable in a way that a text or email never could. They open a window to the soul that something in cyberspace never could (Field). Vulnerability means a strengthened relationship; thus, through inductive reasoning, letters equal strengthened relationships.

Society has become obsessed with constantly being busy. Nothing to do? Why not make dinner plans at the last minute. Heaven forbid that anyone should have a little down time to relax and/or do some thinking. Since it is all “go, go, go” devices have been developed to help people accomplish more things at once; Multitasking Nation might be a fitting change of name for the present day society. To most people, email is good because it is fast; the portable telephone, now known as the cell phone, makes it easier to contact people and actually talk without being restricted by cords that need to be plugged into the wall; texting is very good because it is instant communication—short and sweet. And all these communication techniques can be accessed from Palm Pilots, cell phones, laptops, and iPads. One would think that with unlimited availability of opportunities to connect with people that relationships would be stronger—marriages would not end in divorce, friends from high school and college would stay in touch, and families would not be fractured and falling apart from the distance—physically and relationally. Rather, it is the opposite. Spouses are constantly hounding his or her betrothed about where he or she is and what he or she is doing, whom he or she is with. Friends are unsure about what to say because they have not seen each other in such a long time or they get too busy with their lives to remember the people who they had the time of their lives with. Families are the same way; uncertainty about what the right words to say are, business, and the availability of constant communication break what might have ever been. Why can life not be as simple and a blank sheet of paper and a pen?

There is hardly any area left in the United States that has gone untouched by technology. It has found its way into home and businesses and infiltrated schools. Six in ten teens now own a desktop or laptop computer (Lenhart 8). Most high school students enjoy the distraction from the droning teacher and often find it easier to take notes and complete their homework with the help of a personal laptop. Sixty-nine percent of students say they write better when using a computer when they can revise and edit more easily (Lenhart 13). However, a majority of students acknowledge that there are downsides to having a personal computer available to complete school assignments. Forty-five percent of students admit to taking short cuts and not putting effort into their writing and forty percent say they use poor grammar and spelling and write too fast and carelessly while using a computer (Lenhart 13). A shocking amount of students admitted to using texting acronyms and/or emoticons in their formal school writing (Lenhart 4). In classes that involve a good deal of writing, students who enjoy writing a great deal tend to have higher grades than students who do not enjoy school writing much (Lenhart 69). Still, eighteen percent of high schools seniors scored below a basic level of writing proficiency (Lenhart 13). Surveyed students strongly believe that good writing is a critical skill to achieving success and their parents nodded their heads in agreement (Lenhart 2). What does this say about writing? It is becoming a neglected aspect of the past along with cursive handwriting. Cursive writing is no longer required on state assessments of the new essay portion on the SAT (O’Brien). Messy handwriting has become a problem in schools across the country. When forced to write with a pen or pencil, most are unable to utilize the writing utensil properly and fail to make their work neat. This is shame because neat handwriting seems to have an effect on grades—students with neater handwriting, on average, receive higher marks than sloppy writers. In 2006, only fifteen percent of the test-taking population wrote in cursive and those that did scored an average of 7.2 out of twelve, compared to a mark of seven on printed essays (O’Brien). “Handwriting is a very natural thing for humans. It’s like breathing. If we’re on the beach we could hand write on the sand. It’s something that is innate [and] we can do naturally…” says Sagur N. Srihari, a professor of pattern recognition and handwriting. (Writing off cursive)

Perhaps life cannot be that simplified, but it does not have to be as complicated as some people make it. It is a choice, after all, to constantly be plugged into technology. America needs one big detoxification from its addiction to technology. A good coping mechanism would be letter writing. There is something magical and very mystique about handwritten sentiments, something that transcends over time and distances, over busy schedules and since forgotten memories. A letter is tangible, not locked away inside a cold, hard computer. They hold actual value. Someone had to sit down and put effort into penning the words onto that paper then addressing the envelope and eventually sending it on its way. Personal letters cannot be “deleted” with the click of a mouse like some lousy email. That would be plain rude considering the thought that went into said letters. Letters give the writer an opportunity to be introspective and reflect on the daily occurrences in one’s life and what changes have taken place since last corresponding with the letter’s recipient. It gives one a new view on life. Letters are a different way to express creativity. The point of letter writing is to be personal and make it personalized (Peterson). To see a letter among the seemingly endless envelopes of bills and assorted junk mail in the mailbox is like Christmas. In this day and age, the rarity of it actually heightens the phenomenon of it. Receiving a letter gives a sense of value; the fact that someone cared enough to invest time and energy in the relationship says more than can ever be fathomed. Letters are retro; groovy, retro even. Want to be a real hipster? Write a letter. Fashion trends eventually come back into style. What is to say that letter writing will not follow the same course? Hopefully it will make its come back sooner than later because it is too much of jewel to be discarded. Biographies of people, those famous and sometimes not so famous, are researched for by scouring the person’s life for clues, insights, and hints about the manner in which he or she lived. Letters are a key component of these hints. With most communication and journaling (i.e. blogging) taking place online, historians and writers will have difficult time learning about the email era. Even the National Archives are now swamped with a daunting effort to preserve data in both pre- and post electronic formats (Ryan). Imagine what the future would be like if handwriting ceased to exist forever, especially if they have no record of the pre-electronic age: people would have deformed hands from the lack of dexterity that holding a pencil brings. Trees would take over because the paper would be extinct. Home office supplies would go out of business leaving a gap in the balance of the economy which would ultimately bring the demise of America and end life as it is known. That being said, letter writing can be summed up with one word: priceless.








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