If personal letter is dead, we have lost a friend

March 09, 1995|By Karen Uhlenhuth | Karen Uhlenhuth,Kansas City Star

Think about your mailbox for a moment. You get home from work and, with a slight tingle of anticipation, you reach into it. Out comes a batch of coupons for the neighborhood hairdresser and pizza parlor. A telephone bill. And a catalog featuring such treasures as a necktie shaped like a carp.

You were hoping, perhaps, for a letter? A sheet or two of honest-to-goodness stationery, with a wax seal on the outside and chock-full on the inside of musings about the weather, the garden, the children and the mysteries of life?

Get real, honey. People don't do that anymore.

The personal letter's been in trouble since the invention of the telegraph in 1837.

Now, with faxes and computer e-mail, the personal letter, carried from one home to another in a leather satchel, appears to be all but doomed. Since the U.S. Postal Service in 1987 began asking a random selection of Americans to record their mail habits, it's become clear that personal letters are occupying an ever-smaller place in the mail stream.

Personal letters, greeting cards, announcements and invitations amounted to about 6.1 percent of the mail stream in 1987. They dropped to 5.3 percent in 1991 and 4.5 percent in 1992, according to Jay Lewis, an economist for the post office headquarters in Washington. Those numbers do not include holiday cards.

Although no data are available for years preceding 1987, the longer trend seems apparent, said Fred Spletstoser, a history professor at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. "The telephone and computers have made great letter-writing almost a thing of the past," he said.

Gary Percesepe, a philosophy professor at Cedarville College in Ohio who spent a sabbatical studying personal correspondence, observes, "If you're looking at letters like Lord Byron would send, those have decreased. We have hired people to write for us. What we're missing is the amateur."

The demise of the letter has ramifications for us both as individuals and as a culture, some would argue. Those who study the past and try to put it into perspective are sure to feel the pinch.

"Historians, biographers and reporters have made tremendous use of personal correspondence," said William Jewell's Mr. Spletstoser. "We've learned things about people and events that we never would have learned had those materials not been available."

"I think one of the reasons there is not a biography of (college founder and minister) William Jewell is that we don't know where his papers are, if any exist."

Letters provide "enormous insight" into what people are thinking and feeling, added Herman Hattaway, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "You can't humanize a topic when you have only official documents."

You probably won't find a good pie crust recipe that way, either.

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