strap line


Writing in the Sunshine. Writing in the Shadows.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The gentle art of letter writing

When did you last write a letter?

 Possibly a note to put in with a Christmas card, to send to someone you don't see very often?

But before that?  We don't write letters like we used to - e-mails. texts - but not letters. We're not like the heroines of classic novels who could always retire to their rooms to write letters when they wanted to avoid the hero, their mother, the verbose curate ...

I started to think about letters when I saw an item on the TV about pen pals. I thought about it some more when I was at the National Archive, for the day job, prowling thought the Home Office files for World War II. They were correspondence files, with quantities of letter exchanged between civil servants. I got some good stuff for the PhD, but I found the format of the letters themselves just as interesting. Apart from references to the occasional phone call, everything was by letter - and with two postal deliveries a day, using the post was probably almost as good as sending an e-mail.

It was the construction that was a glimpse of a lost era. Carefully set out by the typists - no DIY typing here - with addresses of sender and recipient in specific places, salutations that used only surnames - it was Dear Smith - not Dear Mr Smith - (it was all misters - no females in sight) and the first lines of many were almost like reading code, with use of terms like Inst and Ultimo for dates. The letters themselves were very formal - on paper that was now tattered and yellowing - signed either with an old fashioned fountain pen, or for run of the mill stuff with a rubber stamp. I remember having custody of one of those for the Town Clerk when I first started work - used for allotment agreements and grave grants. As the war progressed the paper got smaller and thinner and letters were typed on the back of other documents - one of the ones I found relating to Cardiff was on the back of a draft intended for Jarrow - but they were all still laid out in the formal manner.

We don't correspond like that any more. 


  1. A really interesting post, Evonne. I can remember being taught the different formats for formal and informal letters and the respective terminology for beginning and ending them. I have one friend who still writes letters and I love to receive them. I always try to answer with a handwritten letter if my own.

    1. That stuff is ingrained. I still follow the 'faithfully' and'sincerely' rules! I had a friend I used to exchange letters and postcards with but sadly lost him some time ago. Getting a letter is special.

  2. Thanks for a brilliant reminder of how things used to be, Evonne. I must have typed thousands of business letters over the years, probably many of them sitting in a dusty filing system somewhere! I hope the Pen Friend habit takes off. I had around six correspondents at one time, each from a different country. Now we have Facebook, I suppose, but it's hardly the same.

  3. I find the archive endlessly fascinating - glimpse of a way of life that has gone for good. As you say, twitter and face book are good, but it's not really the same.