Is letter writing a lost art or a thriving activity? At Boxcitement we’d love to think that our passion for the hand written word is shared, so we’ve been taking a look around the internet to see what the evidence tells us.
Doing a Google search with a search term ‘art of letter writing’ throws up some unexpected results. Rather than returning long lists of useful web pages full of insights, instructions and thoughts on how to improve your prose when you apply pen to paper, what comes back is a mix of websites bemoaning the death of the art. What happened? Have we all simply forgotten the art of writing (rather than typing)?
Rise of the machine
Emails are now the defacto written communication method between individuals and organisations. Electronic signatures are sufficient to make contracts binding. At the beginning if 2014 Deloitte and Offcom reported that the number of texts sent in the UK had levelled off at somewhere just over 140 billion per annum, and other means of communicating instantly such as Whatsapp and iMessage continue to grow at an exponentially increasing rate. Instant messaging allows direct and instant communication between individuals, companies and groups of individuals. Spellcheck and predictive text are even doing the job of creating the sentences for us – how many times have you replied to a message allowing the predictive text to construct the sentence for you? It’s strangely addictive – and yet does nothing for our individual means of expression.
Thankfully there is an antidote to the disappointment of finding the Google searches that predict the death of letter writing. It’s easy to find blogs which encourage readers to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter or note to a loved one; one of our particular favourites from Brain Pickings encourages the art of writing the perfect letter, and quotes some historical examples and lost traditions of this noble artform. Letter-love is the musings of a 50 something year old lady in Wales who has had pen-pals her whole life; take a look at some of the charming stories and relationships she mentions.
Despite the prevalence of electronic communications, traditional letter writing does seem to be holding its own at the very least. At the top of the pile is the humble greetings card – with some statistics that may surprise you…
The commercial Christmas card was invented in 1846 by Sir Henry Cole, the chief organiser of the Great Exhibition, pioneer of the penny post and founder of the V&A Museum. Today, greetings cards account for £1.6 billion of sales in the UK every year, with 878.8 million single cards being sold in 2014 (source: here). The greeting card industry employs over 100,000 people in the UK including artists, photographers, printers, paper manufacturers and retailers and the sending and receiving of cards is an important part of our culture. Greeting cards are stocked in more shops than any other product – with one in six retailers stocking greeting cards. 85% of all cards are bought by women, and charities estimate that £50m is raised for good causes through the sales of charity Christmas cards each year.
In addition to commercial greetings cards, a cottage industry has grown around the making of cards at home – resulting in it being the number one craft hobby, according to Crafts Beautiful, the top consumer craft magazine.
So what makes greetings cards so popular? Debretts, the etiquette people, point out that a hand written note inherently has the advantage of being deliberated over and therefore stands a better chance of being elegant than a rushed R U OK? text. They point out that there is no delete button, so the note writer must be more considerate in choice of words. The UK card market leads the world in design and manufacture, with traditional techniques like letterpress printing making a strong return to popularity (look out for some letterpress cards in an upcoming Boxcitement box!). You just can’t beat the tactile nature of a beautifully designed and printed card or notelet, arriving with all that junk mail and communicating that someone is thinking of you and wishing you well.
Enthusiastic letter writers need the right materials
Letter-writing enthusiasts are keen to point us towards using the appropriate materials for the job and there are a number of websites devoted to pens, pencils, notebooks and planners. One of our favourites at Boxcitement is called Wood & Graphite which is essentially an ode to pencils: “The 21st century has taken the tactile joy of analog writing from you, it’s time to take it back”. This blogger takes joy from finding pencils here, there and everywhere and goes to great lengths to find new and obscure makes and models.
Another blogger, From the Desk of Adam, is passionate about a wide range of all writing materials including pens, pencils and paper and has even devoted a few words to his appreciation of American legal paper.
Paperchase, a highstreet thoroughbred in the pen and paper game in the UK, are keen to talk aesthetics when describing their writing sets: “All of our writing sets have such beautiful designs, even the shortest thank you letter becomes instantly special. Printed writing paper, matching lined envelopes, address labels and envelope seals for letter-writing like it used to be”.
At Boxcitement we think Simon Garfield sums up the importance of the hand-written letter beautifully in his 2013 book “To the letter: A journey through a Vanishing World”. He describes the difference between the inbox and the shoebox; “only one will be treasured, hoarded, moved when we move or forgotten to be found afterwards … emails are a poke, but letters are a caress and letters stick around to be newly discovered.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.