Social Correspondence: the art of the personal letter

letter writingBy Marcia Schneider

Recently, the U.S. Postal Service announced its intention to discontinue Saturday mail delivery in August 2013. This is not surprising. In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012, the Postal Service reported an all time record operating loss of nearly $16 billion, attributed in part to declining mail volume.

This is not good news for those of us who like to write and receive letters by snail mail. Most people, it seems, prefer to receive even their social correspondence in the quickest, and in some cases, shortest fashion possible. Social media has become the preferred format, with Twitter now the leader in conveying timely, pithy messages.

But given the volume of mail delivered to the average mailbox between August and December 2012 (remember all those catalogs, campaign flyers and philanthropic solicitations?), the continuing demise of the post office and mail delivery seems somewhat mysterious.  According to Chuck Teller, founder of Catalog Choice (a service to delete unwanted snail mail), “the average U.S. household receives 100 pounds of advertising mail each year.” Current news reports indicate that delivery of packages also is holding strong.

Is the decline of profitability of the post office due to less volume, escalating costs, or poor marketing decisions, such as the overproduction and consequent loss of $1.2 million through the disposal of 682 million unsold stamps commemorating The Simpsons television show? Or the $30 million spent sponsoring Lance Armstrong’s now discredited cycling team?

With texting, Facebook , Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and others replacing traditional communications, we never need to feel or be disconnected.  E-mail and text messages are available 24/7 on our tablets and smart phones.

Yet, through force of habit, I still find myself listening for the mail carrier. While not anticipating a newsy, hand written personal letter on pretty stationery, with an assortment of stamps festooning the envelope, I like to think such a concept not totally out of the question. Mostly, the “real mail” that hides in the deluge of bills, catalogs and solicitations is in the form of note cards, rather than stationery, conveying simple yet heartfelt messages, such as “thank you for the baby gift.”

Mostly gone, though, are those long letters, hand written in spiky script, lovingly written by friends and relatives.  Part of the fun of reading such a letter was deciphering and re-deciphering those scrawls until they made sense. Today, in many California schools, cursive handwriting is no longer taught, one more sign that even the hand written note may be headed for extinction.

One exception. December and early January are great months for receiving personal correspondence. Holiday or New Year photo cards and year-in-review letters, enable friends and family to marvel over growing children, expanding families, travel and hobbies, and if lucky, enjoy the short personal note included at the end. In December, the San Francisco Chronicle reported “traditional holiday cards appear to be on the upswing after years of decline.”

There are additional signs of hope for the traditional letter.  Non-virtual social correspondence carries not only a nostalgic cachet, but also modern day relevance.  The San Francisco Gump’s store, purveyor of beautiful wares, recently relocated its stationery collection from its long-time cozy little nook in the back of the store to a somewhat undefined but more visible location. The store still sells a range of fine writing papers and cards, including the beautiful designs of Paula Skene, hand-painted beauties by Bernard Maisner, and the letterpress products of Thornwillow Press and Charles Fradin, as well as Gump’s signature red Shou note cards, designed and printed by Crane.

Stationery and note cards, like vintage books, also have found their own in the design world, often appearing in catalogs for unrelated products.  The cover photo of the fall Garnet Hill catalog, purveyor of clothing and home décor, featured a stack of vintage postcards and letters, tied with a string.  Various websites and specialty shops sell vintage, usable stamps, proving that some people are willing to spend more than mere postage for a letter or card that that doubles as a gift.

Feel out of practice?  San Francisco Public Library has resources to assist you in writing letters:

Lamb, Sandra. How to Write It: a complete guide. Ten Speed Press, 2011.

Covers letters of all kinds.

McCarthy, Margaret. Letter Writing Made Easy.  Santa Monica Press, 1999.

Look for volume 2 for examples on personal letter writing.

Rosalie Maggio. Great Letters for Every Occasion. Prentice Hall, Putnam Penguin, 1999.

A textbook of model letters, including get well, holidays, sympathy, thank you and love letters.

OShea, Samara. For the Love of Letters. Collins, 2007.

Each chapter starts with a fun quote, e.g., John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “P.S., I Love You.”

Letter writing tips can also be found in etiquette books, such as:

Emily Post’s etiquette: manners for a new world / Peggy Post … [et al.], W. Morrow, 2011

Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Norton, 2005

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