Perhaps you have had this experience: quite by chance in an attic or neglected corner of a walk-in closet you come across, likely in a shoebox, a bundle of old letters, possibly secured with ribbon or rubber bands, bearing your handwriting and the distinctive red stripes of airmail envelopes.
A few years ago when I visited an old friend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he showed me just such a bundle of airmail letters from me. I could not bear to untie them, take them from their light envelopes and read them. We were roommates when I was in graduate school and he was in medical school. We always kept in touch no matter where we wound up.
I felt as if I would be reading the thoughts, opinions and emotions of a much less experienced, much more naïve and shallow person, much as we might feel when looking at old photos of various awkward, starry-eyed stages of our youth ― those clothes, hair, glasses, bell-bottom pants and huge collars. It would be like looking at our hominid ancestors, hairy, small and holding stone tools.
Quite aside from the content of the letters, what overwhelmed me was how letter writing and stationery have gone the way of the horse and buggy and the steam engine.
For example, do you remember onionskin paper, so perfectly named, light as a woman’s kiss blown from the rail of an ocean liner to her lover below on the dock? The ink was just as legible from either side of the translucent film. Then there were the stamps, a whole universe of philately. Like many children I had a stamp collection. I never cared for filling in the gaps in the stamp album ― all the denominations for a particular issue. Rather I was fascinated by the languages, writing systems ― the alphabets of Europe with their busy accent marks, the strangeness of Greek and Russian, the mystery of Arabic and the totally opaque squiggles of Chinese. The pictures on the stamps – usually engravings – were glimpses of impossibly remote lands: sailing ships, dhows and junk; pyramids, temples, cathedrals; birds from the Arctic, shorebirds, gulls, eagles, songbirds and jungle birds like parrots and toucans; kings wearing crowns and some with fezzes ― just enough of a peek at exotic realms to whet one’s curiosity.
I remember most vividly the aerograms, those single sheets of thin paper, usually grey or blue, on one side of which you crammed in your message, even writing vertically in margins or around edges, then folded the sheet along the dotted lines and sealed the various tabs on the top and sides of the sheet. The stamp, usually dull as dishwater, was printed on the paper and was included in the price. All you had to do was address it, and drop it in a mailbox.
Aerograms were the cheapest means of keeping alive friendships over vast distances. One of my friends would send aerograms from Turkey and I would see the word uçakla stamped here and there on the envelope ― uç means ‘fly’, uçak ‘airplane’, –la (or ile) ‘by means of’.
One time I lived in Macao, when it was still a Portuguese colony, and would use a bilhete carta-avião (aerogram). The Portuguese aerogram has an interesting history: first, it was invented and patented by one of Portugal’s strangest and most original authors, Fernando Pessoa. Outside the Café Brasileira in Lisbon there is a bronze statue of Pessoa, one leg crossed over the other, his arm raised to emphasize a point. He was a habitué of the haunts of Portuguese poets, writers, playwrights, artists and intellectuals of the early twentieth century. Second, it was devised as a means of facilitating communication between colonists, colonial officials and the military of Portugal’s far-flung seaborne empire and the metropolitan homeland. Much the same is true of British, French and Italian aerograms. The first British aerograms, for example, were issued in Iraq in 1933 (in fact, Roald Dahl was an RAF fighter pilot stationed near Baghdad in 1940).
Only a few nations still issue aerograms ― the former Portuguese colony of Angola is one of them ― while others, like Australia, only issue them once a year, typically at Christmas.
Aerograms are a legitimate branch of philately, with their collectors, historians and experts.
Aside from the physical materials of letter writing is, of course, the tradition of expressing oneself, often at considerable length, in writing. Many pioneering scientists such as Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt were gifted narrators of their extensive discoveries as naturalists, and of their exploratory expeditions in South America, Africa and Asia. These scientists wrote with posterity in mind and with an eye to future publication in book form.
Two of the greatest letter writers, both in quantity and quality, are French: Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696) and Voltaire (1694–1778). Madame de Sévigné’s correspondence is the result of the simple fact that her daughter married and moved away to Provence, a very long way from Paris in the 17th century. From Madame de Sévigné’s quill flowed a steady thirty-year correspondence with her daughter, some 1120 surviving letters (sadly, many of the letters were destroyed after reading). She knew everyone at court from the Sun King himself to Colbert, and was a most amusing reporter of court intrigues and jealousies. She was close friends with La Rochefoucauld, and she describes a performance of Racine’s Esther at Saint-Cyr.
Voltaire, nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778) was a driving force behind the French, and generally European, Enlightenment. It is estimated his letters number about 28,500, of which 19,000 survive. He was an energetic participant in what was called the Republic of Letters, that is, an international network of correspondents who included political leaders, scientists, literary authors, philosophers, explorers and artists. One staunch member of this Republic was the inventor, physicist, political theorist, and American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote and received about 15,000 letters (none to or from Voltaire, it would seem). Voltaire lived for three years in London, from where he sent his famous essays-as-letters on many aspects of English society ― the Quakers, inoculation, Shakespeare, Newton, parliament ― all generally favorable compared to the ancient régime. He also lived for almost three years in Prussia, where he met Frederick the Great, another important, though far less liberal, Enlightenment figure. Despite many stormy differences of opinion and opposing temperaments, the two men carried on a fifteen-year exchange of letters right to the end of Voltaire’s life. In addition, Voltaire long corresponded with Catherine the Great of Russia, who ended by acquiring on Voltaire’s death his library and papers.
Stanford University is the home of a project to map the Republic of Letters. Here is a map showing the geographic web of Voltaire’s correspondence for the period 1755–1776. Off the map to the northeast is Saint Petersburg, the destination of Voltaire’s letters to Catherine the Great. The original map and many more can be found on the Stanford website.
This world of stamps, stationery and aerograms has vanished like morning mist driven before the rising sun, and about as quickly. The advent, first of e-mail and then of texting, has all but obliterated the art of letter writing. E-mail has always had about it the feeling of something disposable, like a memo on where employees are allowed to park their cars. One often uses the reply function, or simply deletes the original.
Texting is limited to 140 characters and thus abounds in abbreviations like LOL. Here literary merit is no more valued than musicianship in contemporary pop music. Whatever. It is a special joy to receive a handwritten letter, no matter how brief. The only one who still sends them to me is my mentor from graduate school, now 82. I am thrilled when I see his beautiful handwriting on the envelope, that confident, graceful penmanship of another era.
We have lost something beautiful and humane.
Click on any image to enlarge
– Robert Fisher
I loved this one. My husband and I have boxes of letters, since we were (as my grandmother would have said) “courting” in the era before email and cell phones, when long distance phone calls were expensive and one waited until 11pm when the rates went down, even for the occasional call. We have three summers’ worth of aerograms, as well, from when I was excavating in North Africa and the MIddle East. We had rules for our letters: 1) if you wrote something, you had to mail it; 2) you were not allowed to descend to mundane topics like the weather; 3) when mailing internationally, we numbered the outside of the aerogram or envelope so you know the order in which to read the letters that often would arrive in clumps on a single day.
A friend of Living Toronto