The lost art of letter writing

Unlike emails, handwritten missives can be saved and reread. There’s time to actually think about your reply.

Postage stamp

Orlon was the new “in” fabric of the mid-1950s. I know this because I read it in not one, but two letters written during that time by my best friends — Ardis, who’d rushed out to purchase a sweater, and Marilyn, who bought a skirt made of the stuff (acrylic).

We’d all just graduated from high school and gone our separate ways.

Having vowed to keep in touch — and because long-distance telephoning was costly — letter writing was our only option. And write we did — always making mention of clothing purchases.

Marilyn had moved to Minneapolis, and had taken a secretarial job with Chrysler Corporation. Ardis was soon to leave home for nursing school.

I was living with my sister in a rural community near our hometown, doing clerical work in a small office.

Our letters were filled with oodles of girl stuff:

“Marlene and I gave Annie mixing bowls, white with black polka dots, (sketched out) for her bridal shower.”

“Tonight I’m going shopping as the downtown stores here in Minneapolis are open. I need a new winter coat and a steam iron.”

Ardis’s letters were always funny. In one, she told a long, hilarious tale of Greyhound bus ride to Rochester with a classmate, Ruthie, to get enrolled in a  nursing school with an LPN program.

It ran five pages!

Intending to follow in Marilyn’s footsteps, I loved hearing about her job:

“Our big day was the showing of the ’55 Chrysler in the St. Paul Auditorium. There were over 1,000 people there.”

Each and every one of the letters was addressed to me as “JoAnn,” my second name used throughout school, validating that little oddity of my life.

And they came complete with relics from that era: There’s the purple 3-cent postage stamp — and the stationery.

Ardis’s stationery was always fancy, with scalloped borders — the kind we’d gift each other for birthdays.

Marilyn stuck to school-tablet paper, filling in each line with her perfect penmanship, indicative of her valedictorian status.

When reading the letters in sequence, I can see how they captured the changes my two best friends were undergoing during this important time of life transitions, as though in a diary.

I am so glad I saved them. They’re valuable personal mementos.

But alas, their time has come and gone.

It seems that crafting a letter by hand is almost unheard of today — so much so that it’s being called a “lost art.” And, alas, alas, email is being used instead.

There is simply no way typewritten text can take the place of a friend’s familiar handwriting, with its cross-outs and quirks. (Ardis often wrote on both sides of the paper.) Reading a letter from a computer screen squelches the intimacy of the message.

Email demands an immediate response. But a letter can be saved and reread, as letters are intended to be, with thoughtful consideration given to a reply.

And a letter can’t be deleted. It can last way beyond its writing and provide valuable history.

I mean, who would’ve remembered Orlon?


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected] com.