On The Beauty of the Hand-Written Letter

Posted on February 11, 2013

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I have mentioned previously that my Great-Grandfather served in World War One.  At one time, young Ted Roosevelt, the former President’s eldest son, served under his command.  My ancestor thought highly of him, and wrote to the former President telling him so.  Teddy Roosevelt showed his appreciation for this scarce and personal wartime news by writing back a two-page letter in his own hand.

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I am so glad that you think well of my son Ted, the Major.  I shall keep your letter as a precious heritage to hand to his children…

…Well, my dear General, I am very grateful to you.  If ever I can be of service to you, I shall eagerly hail the chance.

Faithfully yours

Theodore Roosevelt

Not only did my Great-Grandfather’s letter become – perhaps – part of young Ted Roosevelt’s family history, but it was quite something to have a two-page, personal letter in return from the former President!

Awww.  This will be handed down for generations!

Awww. This will be handed down for generations!

What if it had been an email?  Would it be as exciting, as special, as treasured?  I don’t think so.  Just as we complain that immersing ourselves into a behind-the-screens existence has muted our friendships, so it is that dashing off a few electrons which arrive filtered through microprocessors and servers seems… diluted.  Disconnected.  Impersonal.  All emails look alike, essentially; a personal wish from your dearest friend is displayed just like a random spam message, or that annoying note from your boss.

This is not just the older generation griping about new technology; it’s the loss of that personal touch.  We have a few telegrams that we have preserved in our family, because the news they contain is important to us; but the telegram just does not carry the same weight of sentiment that our hand-written letters do.

My Grandfather's hand.

My Grandfather’s hand.

Handwriting is special.  The sender actually held the paper, put pen to it, marked it with his own unique style.  Our loved ones’ handwriting is instantly recognizable to us; receiving an envelope embellished in a familiar hand brings a smile, excitement and anticipation of the contents.  And going through old letters handed down in a trunk brings back powerful memories, or provides a tangible connection to the ancestor you never met.  Will email ever do that?  No.

My Great-Grandfather's hand.

My Great-Grandfather’s hand.

What a pity that cursive handwriting – indeed, even just neat handwriting – is dying out.  Schools barely teach it anymore, as Claire Suddath reports in Time magazine.  This is a bigger problem than just having sloppy, childish print-handwriting as adults; neuroscientists point out that children learn to read more effectively when they also practice forming letters by hand, as opposed to just using a keyboard.

Then there is this:  Ms. Suddath notes, “The Declaration of Independence is already hard to read.”  Personally, I think the Declaration is one of the easiest historical documents to read.  Ms. Suddath is not some snot-nosed teen.  She says she was in third grade in 1990; this means she is well into her adult career now.  Our country is in the hands of her generation, and they cannot decipher hand-written historical documents, or their own trunks of family letters in the attic.  We have passed into a dreary phase in which this will soon be a “specialty,” if it isn’t already.

The Declaration of Independence.  Is this hard to read?

The Declaration of Independence. Is this hard to read?

Indeed, for those who dream of sending their loved one a handwritten missive, it seems to have become easier to pay dearly to have someone else provide it as a service.  For a mere $200, Paperfinger will transcribe your words into a beautiful one-page, handwritten letter on fine stationery.   It has occurred to Lila that she has calligraphy pens and India ink, and knows how to use them.  Hmmm.  But you know, hiring someone to write your beautiful letter for you is barely one step up from the telegram.  It’s prettier and more expensive, but it’s not your hand.  It’s just not the same.

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My Aunt’s hand.

I love the Internet.  I really think it is perhaps the best and greatest technological development in my lifetime (well – so far).  But I am so glad to have known the world before the Internet, before personal computers, before smartphones.  All of that stuff was actually pretty easy to learn how to use.  The hard part was learning cursive, memorizing multiplication tables, using a slide rule, navigating with just a compass and contour map – or the stars.  All the tech is convenient, but it’s a good feeling not being dependent on it.  And it’s a great thing to be able to read my own family’s history in their own words.

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