Have you watched the box office hit American romantic movie P.S. I Love You by Warner Bros. Pictures? In this movie, a young widow discovers that her late husband has left her letters intended to help ease her pain and encourage her to start a new life. She gets inspiration and starts a new, successful life.
Letters to Juliet, The Shop Around the Corner, You’ve Got Mail, Mary and Max, The Notebook, The Lake House, The Young Victoria - these are just a few names among countless movies that revolve around the theme of letters.
Letters have been playing a crucial part in the lives of people and shaping history for thousands of years.
In 1527, King Henry VIII professed his love in his letters to Anne Boleyn, who became his second wife. Perhaps the most significant part of the letter is the way he ends it, signing off with: ‘…written with the hand of him who wishes he were yours.’
The essence of pure love can only be felt, fully, through handwritten letters.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States is thought to have been inspired to grow a beard when Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl, wrote a letter to him in 1860. The letter said: ‘….. I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow, I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you…....’
When Martin Luther King was arrested and sent to Birmingham Jail on Apr 12, 1963, his 11-page letter known as ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ in response to the statement by white clergymen in Alabama, reinforced the need for non-violent protests calling for the end of racism and influenced the Civil Rights Movement.
Charles Darwin introduced the idea of evolution and natural selection through the exchange of 1,400 letters with his closest friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker which paved the way for his book On the Origin of Species.
In 1920, the fate of women’s right to vote rested in the hands of the vote of Tennessee House Representative Harry Thomas Burn -- a man, who strongly opposed the movement. On Aug 18 that year, he cast the deciding vote in favour of the 19th Amendment to the US constitution. His vote in favour was unexpected. What was the reason?
Febb Ensminger Burn, his mother, had written a letter to him urging him to favour the cause. She had written: "Don’t forget to be a good boy."
Burn, later, acknowledged that his mother’s letter had influenced him.
All these are examples of the powerful impact of handwritten letters.
Letters provide accounts of social, political and economic conditions of the time when the letters are written.
The 7,500 letters written by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore published chronologically with synopses by Gaurchandra Saha are still helping researchers to learn more about his life and the socio-political scenario of those days.
According to the ancient historian Hellanicus, the first hand-written letter was written by Queen Atossa around 500 BC.
The art of writing letters has existed for centuries in ancient Egypt and Greece. During that time, letters were written on clay, metal, leaves of plants, lead, pottery fragments, animal skin, barks of trees and papyrus, sometimes with reed brushes or thin wood. During the 17th and 18th centuries, letters were used to send information, greetings or exchange ideas on common subjects.
Initially, letters were delivered through human messengers and horses. Later, pigeons were used to carry messages from one place to another. Gradually, written letters became common practice and were sent in envelopes.
Before the mid-19th century, envelopes were handmade and very costly, so people often folded letters and sealed them with a wax stamp. The first adhesive postage stamp was invented in the UK in 1940. It was called Penny Black. Stamps also helped people know about some of the cultures and traditions of those countries. People used to collect stamps as a hobby.
With the advancement of time, people started using letters for personal interactions. Especially during times of war, families and lovers stayed in touch by writing letters.
Interestingly, the longest letter in the world was written on a 3,200-foot narrow tape by a woman in the US to her boyfriend who was serving in the army.
Every year World Letter Writing Day is celebrated on Sept 1.
During the late 1990s, Australian author, artist, and photographer Richard Simpkin started writing letters to those he considered Australian legends with the intent of arranging personal interviews and photography sessions. Their responses helped him write his book Australian Legends in 2005.
As a tribute to the art of handwritten letters, Simpkin founded World Letter Writing Day on Sept 1, 2014.
In this digital age, it’s very easy to send a text or an email. Thus, handwritten letters have lost their foothold. We do get some business letters in the mailbox but rarely personal letters.
Think about the printed pictures that you save on laptops and mobile phones. Do they evoke the same emotion that you have, when you hold the printed photographs in your hands? Print copies evoke stronger emotions and give you a unique feeling.
It’s the same with handwritten letters. Letter writing is a beautiful art form. These are more meaningful than texts or emails. They show that the person cares and has taken the time to write. Taking a letter in hand instils powerful feelings of love, care, nearness and ownership.
How do parents feel when they see their child inscribing 'Dear Mom/Dad I love you,’ on a piece of paper? This is treasured by the parents forever as mementoes of their love and affection.
You can observe World Letter Writing day by:
• Simply writing a letter to someone you care about. But it’s important that the letter is handwritten with a pen or a pencil on real paper. You can write to your grandparents- they will love it.
• Learning how to write an effective handwritten letter and calligraphy.
• Teaching children and the young generation the art of handwritten letters: how to write thank you letters to parents, teachers and friends.
• Reading letters of famous and popular personalities.
• Writing letters of encouragement and thank you letters to patients in your local hospitals, to an older mentor, your parents, friends, neighbours, physical therapist, dentist, or doctor. This would truly make them smile. It may go a very long way in building a stronger bond between you and the recipient.
• Write a letter for someone to read in the future. It can be stored somewhere safe or given to a friend and instructed what to do with the letter in future.
• You can also share this day on social media with #WorldLetterWritingDay or #WLWD
Though emails can be saved, these don’t incite excitement on a personal level. Letters, on the other hand, bring back a sense of nostalgia. Thus, important letters are saved and treasured for many years.
World Letter Writing Day is a reminder of this beautiful art form of handwritten words. The appeal of reading a handwritten letter is timeless.
Go ahead and celebrate World Letter Writing Day. Pick up a pen and pour down your innermost thoughts on a piece of paper. Draw your smiley to express your feelings. It will be one of the most interesting things you have done in a long time.
P.S. I love you all!
1. Handwritten letters that made history, Pen heaven, Oct 28, 2015
2. Rossen, Jake. 5 Letters That Changed The World, Mental Floss, May 13, 2019
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]