The letter is dead. Long live Facebook?

15272Today we have a guest post from Lindsay O'Neill, author of The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World. In it, O'Neill explores the importance and impact of networking via letter-writing among the members of the elite from England, Ireland, and the colonies. Combining extensive archival research with social network digital technology, The Opened Letter captures the dynamic associations that created a vibrant, expansive, and elaborate web of communication.

The letter is dead! Long live Facebook! Or texting or email or Twitter or any other newly hatched form of communication that can be done from a computer or smart phone. Laments about the loss of the personal letter have gently blanketed news sites for the past couple of years. A quick Google news search for “letter writing” brings up “Relearning the art of letter writing and using ‘snail mail’” and “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” among the first five hits. (1) The most personal form of letter, the love letter, has received special attention: Will poetry survive the age of sexting? (2) The same kinds of laments encircle the beleaguered post office. Reports reveal that it has not made a profit since 2006 and that much of its financial difficulty stems from the drying up of first class mail, of which letters are a part. (3) The communicative world that has sustained us for the past three hundred or four hundred years, if one is conservative, seems to be dying right before our eyes.

In some ways, I commiserate. The friendly blue postal collection boxes seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate along my routes of travel. I actually cannot remember the last time I sat down and wrote a personal letter and I have stodgy dislike of both texting and emoticons. I love uncovering old bundles of letters long forgotten that lie hidden in drawers at home. Pulling them out, unfolding them, and reading them pulls me back to days long gone. Such letters are physical anchors to the past that I can touch and revisit. But, and this is a rather big but, nothing I do in my life outside of academia brings me back to my work on letter writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like logging into Facebook.

Certainly, letters from the early modern period were different. They were often more thought out than your average email; they had to be. Paper was scarce and they needed to be worth the receiver’s time because he or she paid for the letter upon receipt. Such letters were not cheap. Letters going fewer than eighty miles within England cost two     pence a sheet until 1711, which was the equivalent of two pots of ale. (4) Both sending and receiving a letter took more effort than just hitting send. This infused letters with value. Correspondents often treasured letters as tokens of affection. One couple kissed each other’s letters. He would “kiss it to its native White” and she “kiss’d your Dear Letter a thousand times.” (5) In many ways, these letters represent what modern society misses in the world of email, texting, and Facebook: they were well thought out, treasured, and often deeply intimate.

However, looking solely at these elements also speaks more to our own desires than the historic reality. We fret that our new communicative world pushes us to react too quickly and ponder less. But for the letter writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the world seemed to be moving quickly too. They worried about the new communicative possibilities surrounding them. The post office might be old and comforting to us, but it was just opened widely to the public in Britain in 1660—for them it was new. It was also troublesome. Government eyes could open letters and sometimes the system simply did not work (sound familiar?). Furthermore, not all letters were well thought out intimate notes from the soul. Of the over 10,000 letters I read for The Opened Letter, only a handful fit into this category. Most letters were businesslike scrawls meant to get things done. These were not kissed and they were only treasured as records of transactions. Letters such as these echo the emails that fill our inboxes on a daily basis.

Coating letters with a nostalgic gloss keeps us from seeing that letter writing in the past was similar to logging into Facebook. These letters often connected whole communities, not just the sender and receiver. They passed on messages about other friends and they asked receivers to do the same. Often a letter was read out loud to a whole group and some senders assumed one letter would be sufficient to bind a whole collection of friends and family to them. As one English women stated in a letter: “I thought reading one letter at a time from one so dull as my self was a sufficient penance for the whole Family.” (6) These well constructed letters were also status updates that transmitted news to whole social circles.

The post office is faltering and letters are becoming less formal and more ephemeral. However, much in our past communicative world echoes our present. Social networks mattered in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, too, and, in fact, in the absence of more formalized structures of societal organization, they might have mattered more. The letter may be dying, but the social urge behind Facebook is hardly new.

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Lindsay O'Neill teaches in the Department of History at the University of Southern California. The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World is available now.

 


1: Google search 6 October 2014. Jennette I. Andrade, “Relearning the art of letter writing and using ‘snail mail,’” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 4 October 2013, accessed 6 October 2014, http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/173594/relearning-the-art-of-letter-writing-and-using-snail-mail. Tina Bridenstine, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” The Shawnee News-Star, 1 October 2014, accessed 6 October 2014, http://www.news-star.com/article/20141001/News/141009948.

2: See Jami Attenberg, “In this Digital Age, Where Have All the Love Letters Gone?,” Vogue, 22 May 2014, accessed 6 October 2014, http://www.vogue.com/872420/digital-age-emailing-sexting-death-of-the-love-letter/. Joe O’Connor, “Expressing Affairs of the Heart: Can love’s poetry survive in the age of emails, texts and tweets?,” National Post, 14 February 2013, accessed 6 October 2014, http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/02/14/expressing-affairs-of-the-heart-frivolous-emails-texts-have-replaced-the-sappy-love-letter/.

3: Josh Hicks, “Postal Service lost $1.9 billion in second quarter, despite uptick for first class mail,” The Washington Post, 9 May 2014, accessed 6 October 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2014/05/09/postal-service-lost-1-9-billion-in-second-quarter/. Martha White, “This Plan Could Save the Post Office From Extinction,” Time, 7 February 2014, accessed 6 October 2014, http://time.com/5456/this-plan-could-save-the-post-office-from-extinction/.

4: It would increase to three pence a single sheet in 1711. Howard Robinson, The British Post Office (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 96.

5: Martin Madan to Judith Cowper, [13 October 1723]; Judith Cowper to Martin Madan, [1 May] 1724, Bodleian Library, MSS.Eng.lett.c.284, f. 4, 35.

6: Lady Rook to John Perceval, 24 June [1724], British Library, Add. MS 47030, f. 70.

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