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You’ve Got Mail! The History of Letter Writing

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Published On: February 14th, 2023
You’ve Got Mail! The History of Letter Writing

Put pen to paper (or printer to paper) and make your feelings known to those around you. Letters are great for personal use, but can also be beneficial in adding a personal touch to business communications. Due to an influx in digital messages, some people underestimate the value of letters, but you do not have to be Shakespeare to write a letter from the heart. While we can now send instant messages and get responses in seconds, this was not always the case. Here’s a brief history of letters and what written communication looks like today.

How Letter Materials Have Changed

From ancient papyrus scripts to sending thank-you cards, letters have always held a significant practical and cultural purpose. Before handwritten letters existed, many cultures created etchings on various materials such as stone or clay tablets.

The ancient historian Hellanicus claimed that the first recorded letter was written by Persian Queen Atossa around 500 BC. The topic of this letter, however, is not clearly known.

The time-consuming art of hand-written text was eased by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436. Similar woodblock printing devices also date back to Chinese and Korean bookmakers in the 9th century. The printing press might have initially been created to ease the process of writing long documents such as books, but this quickly paved the way for printing of shorter documents.

Famous Letters Through Time

The invention of the printing press certainly did not make handwritten letters obsolete. In fact, many of history’s noted letters were written by hand. Here are a few of the most famous:

  • King Henry VIII: A well-known set of love letters from King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn was discovered in the Vatican Library. These letters were sent when Henry VIII sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This later resulted in Henry creating the Church of England, as the Catholic Church refused to allow his annulment.
  • Charles Darwin: When Charles Darwin was sailing on the HMS Beagle, he sent and received many letters that contributed to his research on the theory of evolution and natural selection. Specifically, his letters to botanist Joseph Hooker, which are now held in the Cambridge Digital Library, served as a basis for his theories.
  • Winston Churchill: Not only have letters introduced new theories, but they have also changed the tides of war. When Winston Churchill became the prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1940, he was urged by many to bargain with Nazi Germany to end WWII. A famously written correspondence with his secretary detailed Churchill’s refusal to bargain with the powers that be.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.: Another well-known letter was written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was kept in a Birmingham jail. Arrested for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations, Dr. King wrote a response to criticism of the Birmingham Campaign for human rights.

History of Letter Delivery

In ancient times, private methods of letter delivery were used, often through carrier pigeons or a messenger on foot or horseback. Before the implementation of public mail systems, letters were also carried privately through a number of delivery methods.

This was significantly more expensive than the cost to ship mail through the United States Postal Service (USPS) now. The USPS was established in 1971 with the passing of the Postal Service Act. In 2021, USPS handled 128.9 billion mail parcels, with many being letters.

While USPS is still crucial today, many letters or messages don’t even exist in a physical form and instead are sent electronically.

How We Communicate Today

Today, a large portion of communication is digital messaging. This includes emails, text messages and direct messages on social media. Even though these digital platforms thrive because of their convenience and immediacy, printed mail is still effective.

There is a reason why direct mail is still relevant today: It works! Letters have a personal value that appeals to customers more than their digital counterparts. Even if you are sending thousands of letters, they can still leave a personal touch on each recipient.

How Will Letters Inspire You?

Throughout the history of letters, some have had the power to change the world. While yours may not be as influential as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters from the Birmingham jail, they still have the power to impact those around you.

There are many times when letters are the best way for a business to communicate a message. An authentic letter with a real signature can have a significant impact. Target Print & Mail is built to manage any type of direct mail campaign. We can help target who you want to reach, print just about anything, and mail it out for you. If you need a small postcard mailer going to your neighborhood or a large-scale direct mail campaign to be designed, printed and mailed out nationwide, we have you covered.

Regardless of how you choose to spread the word, Target Print & Mail is there for you. Call or click today to get a quote – we look forward to bringing your ideas to life.