Looking through rosy glasses back a hundred years or more there’s something magical or certainly romantic about the old method of communication. The scene: lovers separated by circumstance have no method other than the post by which to interact. Sitting at a wooden desk, candles flickering from drafts blowing between log chinking the letter writer sits with quill, or later, pen and ink well. The pen would have been a slender wood handle with a detachable metal tip that is split. Inside the split between the two thin prongs which together form the writing tip enough ink is trapped to scratch out a few letters after which the tip had to be dipped in the well.
Paper was expensive requiring clear thoughts prior to setting ink to paper. Perhaps a walk down the country lane, lover’s letter in hand would help formulate the reply.
What appeals to me so much is the time and skill applied. Perhaps after the first couple of paragraphs the writer might rise to pace a bit in thought and, cabin growing cold, replenish the fire. From the outer dark come owl hoots, perhaps the scream of a fox. In the stable next door knicker and stamp sleepy horses… and always from the desk the soft scratch of metal on paper.
These letters displayed a facility with language, an adroitness at expressing thought that many contemporary adults do not apply to personal communication.
From John Meacham’s American Lion, below is an excerpt from Emily Donaldson to her husband Andrew Donaldson (part of Andrew Jackson’s extended family). In a precursor of my own woes about modern emails, she laments he doesn’t write frequently or fully enough. She ends with his constant presence in her mind:
Although your letters are like angel’s visits, few and far between, yet when they do come, you hardly say “how do you do” and goodbye. Do let me know everything that passes, how you get along and what you employ yourself about and if you think much about us. You are never absent from my thoughts, when I lay down it is only to think of you. And when I sleep I dream of you.
Once written the old fashioned letter might’ve taken weeks to arrive. But when the recipient took the fat envelope in his or her hands and felt it’s weight, the heart lept with anticipation at the communication and sentiment contained within.
Though scratching a long letter on parchment by candlelight has romantic appeal, I much prefer typing. In fact I dislike handwriting. Email is instant and I love sending and receiving photos. Much as I enjoy the craft of letter writing, I have few people with whom to share this passion. But I cannot know who is around the next bend…