On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?

I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.

I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.

For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.

Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.

As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.

A rare photo of the Leslie side of the family. My dad holding my brother; me sitting on my great uncle Tom's knee.

Great Uncle Tom. A funny, wonderful man whom I utterly adored. Photo taken in Carshalton, Surrey, c. 1966. Leslie family archive.

In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:

DAD PASSED AWAY QUIETLY MONDAY 23RD 910PM  MUM

Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother's employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother’s employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible  realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:

... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)

Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).

Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.

The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.

So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.

We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. The theme was Letters.

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(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...

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23 thoughts on “On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

  1. Having just found a pile of letters that my father wrote to my aunt over the years, I found this post right on target. Although the letters were just brief notes, usually not very informative, it was still quite moving to read these notes that spanned over 40 years. My father also found it quite something to look back and read the letters.

    I’ve kept all the letters my husband wrote to me the first year we dated when we were four hours apart and saw each other once every two weeks. Someday my kids will love those letters!

  2. You are spot on with what you wrote. People rarely write letters anymore, so I feel future generations will be missing so much. My children know it is my pet peeve that thank you notes have also been disappearing, so I have tried to pound this into their heads to do so. The Internet is great because it enables us to do our research, and read stories such as yours. As great as technology is, relying on all things digital is not good. We easily record all our events on our phones and social media, but these pictures and letters won’t be available for our grandchildren to stumble upon tucked away in a drawer someday. It is sad.

    • Thank you. Digital photos are another of my pet peeves. My parents have entrusted me with their family photos and I have begun to realise just how important they are. I used to print the best of my digital photos and put them in an album (they were generally shots of my son, so it made sense to me), but I have stopped doing that as the albums seemed to take up too much space. I keep telling myself that one day I will create a proper photo archive — SIGH!
      I agree with you too about thank-you notes, but I am guilty now of sending emails instead of proper notes.
      It is so ironic that while we create so many images and communications, they are so transitory that we are actually generating a huge gap in the historical record. It IS sad.

  3. Such a wonderful post with a nice vintage feeling!The last letter I wrote was a decade ago,but I treasure all the letters I’ve received.Enjoy your day,dear friend Su 🙂 xxx

    • Hello Doda. Thank you. I wish now that I had saved letters people have written to me, and I did for a while. But every now and then I reinvent myself and throw away bits of my past.
      My handwriting is so bad these days (total lack of practice) that even if I wrote a letter, I doubt anyone could read it.
      All the best to you my dear friend. xx

      • I wish I could do that not only with letters but with a lot of stuff.I’m thinking though of the practicability of the matter when I depart.I can imagine dump tracks coming and going …

  4. I guess the eventual solution will be online mausoleums which contain our digital past. Someone should be working on this now or maybe they are. I received a handwritten letter quite recently and I was so delighted I replied in kind – even though the stamp to the US cost £2.50 and I actually had the recipient’s email address 🙂
    Thought provoking post Su, thanks.

    • The question of digital archives is one that professional archivists are coming to terms with — at least for institutional records. Families, I think will be a long way behind and there will inevitably be a huge gap in the record. I keep some old personal emails (a few back to about 2001, but they aren’t archived as such, just not deleted from my email account). I imagine that, although I think they are significant, whoever accesses my computer after my death (and I haven’t given that much thought), will probably delete them. I know what you mean about wanting to reply “in kind.” My mother occasionally sends me a letter or card and I always feel that I should write back. I never do, but it does make me pick up the phone and chat to her. Postage is sooo expensive and I guess will only become more so as demand drops, but the costs of infrastructure don’t. I’ve started using online shopping to buy for my UK relatives — even small things cost too much to send from NZ.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting; this is a subject dear to me and I do tend to rave when given the slightest encouragement. 🙂

  5. Dropped in from Ailsa’s post to read your lovely poignant post. I’m one of those people who miss the days of letter writing. As someone who lived overseas for several years when sending, and receiving, those flimsy blue airmail letters was part of my life, much as blogging is today. The worst part was having to wait 3 weeks or more to get an answer to a question. Telephoning was prohibitively expensive. I regret that I didn’t save the letters from my Mum, but I do have some later ones from my mother-in-law which are interesting to read even the mundane ones. And I do have a couple from WWII sent to my mother. As you say, a snapshot of history. I still send postcards to my grandchildren from my travels and they send me cards sometimes. I like to see my postcards pinned up in their bedroom, you can’t really do that with an email. How long it will last now they are of an age to have mobile phones I don’t know. They already say thank-you by a text 😦

    • Thank you Jude. I had forgotten the frustration of waiting for answers to questions! What a different world! My mother still sends postcards to my son when she travels and I still buy them (with the best intentions)!
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I am so enjoying all the different memories of letters that are being shared. Cheers, Su.

  6. Forty-four years ago my teacher arranged for everyone in our class to be matched up with a pen pal. I began writing to a girl in Malta – who would have ever thought that we would still be in touch all these years later? We used to buy fancy stationery and often would write ten or more pages with each letter. As soon as I received her reply, I would be working on an answering letter as would she with me. I have a rather huge bundle of treasured letters saved that probably span twenty or twenty-five years but your post just made me realise that the last couple of decades have been digital correspondence and I have nothing to show for them. Not only that, but the fact that email is easy and free means it is easy to dash off a quick note and there never seems to be time to really write a newsy letter to catch up on each other’s lives. My own children learned to email at a pretty early age and my grandchildren will likely never know the joy of getting a letter in the mail which is a little sad.
    Thanks for the inspiring post. I might just sit down and write a letter tonight!

    • Hi Barbara. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I remember being assigned a pen-friend at school, but it was a much less successful friendship than yours! You are absolutely right that electronic communications are not only impermanent, but tend to be short and less personal and “newsy.” Sometimes I find myself writing an email (or even a text or FB message) to a friend, realise it’s getting complex and either phone them, or abandon telling them whatever it was that was so time-consuming to put into words. I guess we are going to be seen as the “dark ages” for future historians. Thanks again. Cheers, Su.

  7. My last pen-pal fizzled out in the early 1990s. I send birthday cards to my grandkids, now and then, but I’m a pretty hopeless grandmother.

    Last December, I wanted to write a letter and was shocked I’d forgotten writing-pads existed. I certainly didn’t have one. I’d decided to write a letter to go with the calendar to Mr R’s Welsh cousin. We’ve exchanged cards and calendars since we made the connection through family history research. Well, Alun has. Some years he misses out on a Christmas card and gets the calendar in March. It’s lovely to get something in the mail besides bills or stuff from eBay.

    Your heart-felt post, set me thinking.

    • Thanks for your comments Christine — and for the reblog! One of the things I’ve realised that I’d forgotten is that “snailmail” takes time (DOH!). It was my brother’s birthday today and I only posted a card a couple of days ago (he’s in the UK, I’m in NZ). I’m so used to the immediacy of email and social media, I just don’t leave enough time for anything else. And now you’ve got me thinking about the annual calendar production. I started making calendars for the grandparents when my son was little. They still expect it, but it’s now almost impossible to get photos of the kid to put in it. Sigh!

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