In praise of snail mail

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Last week the New York Times reported on cable network HBO teaming up with the United States Postal Service to promote its new mini-series “John Adams.” In the process, they’re also promoting letter writing. Our nation’s second president and his wife Abigail were “prolific letter-writers,” as the article tells us. “They exchanged more than 1,100 letters from 1762 until 1801, dating from their courtship through his presidency.”

As part of the campaign, you can even send a free card, postage paid, to anyone you choose from a special Postal Service website. HBO is picking up the tab for the service.

john-adams.jpgThis brilliant marketing campaign got me thinking about the pleasures of snail mail. You know—real mail. I mean, I love the immediacy of email. It’s more than convenient—it also helps us feel connected. Often after exchanging a flurry of emails with a friend or family members, I feel as if we’ve been talking on the phone.

But there’s just something magical about real mail. If I drop a card or a note in the mail, even to these same friends with whom I routinely swap emails, invariably I hear back about how special it was to receive an actual piece of mail.

And who doesn’t have a stash of old letters and cards tucked away somewhere? My colleague Lisa recently told me about writing a letter to her grandmother, or perhaps a birthday card, just remembering some of the many wonderful things the two of them had done together when she was growing up and lived next door to her grandma. By then, her grandmother had retired to another state and walked with the aid of a walker. She kept Lisa’s letter in the basket on her walker and showed it to everyone.

Another reason I like letter writing is I like rituals. I love to make martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care to drink them. What I like about them is that they involve cool stuff and processes: Frosted martini glasses, cocktail shakers, twists or olives, shaking or stirring, depending on which Bond film you believe… Fortunately for me, Marion likes the occasional martini and I get to make it.

Mail has its own paraphernalia and processes. Cards, postcards, stationery [if you want to get fancy]… and the stamps! We always buy commemorative stamps. Always. And we always have the postal clerk haul out all the various kinds available to choose from. There’s also the whole chain of events that gets set into motion when you drop a card or a letter into the mailbox. Maybe I paid too much attention to those movies they showed us in grade school, but I think about the journey that piece of mail will make as I send it. Then again, with the way people obsessively check tracking numbers on packages when they ship something, maybe that’s normal.

The beauty of postcards. The range of postcards out there is nothing short of amazing. From the typical tourist cards to humor to absolute works of art. Of course, a favorite of mine are unintentionally funny promotional cards. I once got a postcard from a relative on vacation in Florida that had obviously been sent out of familial duty. It was a free card provided by the motel where she was staying and featured the self-serve washers and dryers that the motel considered a major selling point for making it your home away from home. Said relative didn’t have an ironic bone in her body, but plenty of practical ones—so for her, the card filled the request for one. For me, it was hysterical, better than any carefully chosen palm tree scene could have been.

The real beauty of postcards, though, is their finite writing space. Sometimes you want to just drop a quick line to someone, make contact, but an entire sheet of paper is daunting. With a postcard, you can dash off a few lines and you’re done. And the person on the other end still feels really good and really special when it arrives. Or you can do what we more often do, writing small, filling the entire writing space and even spilling over under the address.

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For a while, anytime we hit flea markets, I would look for old postcards, mostly vintage cards of places I’d lived, St. Louis and Chicago. And I specifically sought out cards that hadn’t been written on. I would send these to friends who had also lived in these places. Typically, these cards run anywhere from a buck to a few dollars, cheaper than most greeting cards. And way more fun. Preparing to write this post, I flipped through my stack of old postcards. I think maybe it’s time to revive this practice.

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8 Responses to “In praise of snail mail”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    I love postcards, too.

    Once, while touring a train museum, I spied three large black-and-white photos of the Eads Bridge, the ornate old downtown train depot, and other St. Louis train-related memorabilia. The old postcards of these scenes were only 25-cents a piece and probably had sat for decades and decades on the top shelf that dadoed the giftshop. I took the postcards home, matted them in red, and framed them in bamboo and hung them over an old cherrywood primitive chest. Best 75-cents I ever spent!

  2. Terry B Says:

    Carolyn—A great story! Looking at my old postcards for this post, I thought of framing one or two of them in oversized frames with a nice matte.

  3. Helmut Says:

    A great comment. Sadly even a simple air mail 1 sheet letter from Europe costs 1.70 Euro. With the total collapse of the dollar that is well over USD2.00. Yes, I loved vintage cards! Some were real works of art. And always so inexpensive. My favorite American, Thomas Jefferson, was also an obsessive letter writer.

  4. Toni Says:

    The only time I write postcards is when I’m traveling somewhere. My sister-in-law is so incredibly good at writing Thank You notes, it puts me to shame. And yes, it’s always such a thrill to get something hand written in between the stacks of bills and junk mail.

    Thanks for the update on the free postcard campaign!

  5. Terry B Says:

    Helmut—Given how we so quickly plop down three bucks or more for a cup of coffee, letters and cards are still a bargain, I think.

    Toni—You should take a page from your sister-in-law’s notebook. Postcards make it relatively painless. Some other favorites of mine are black & white photos of famous people—from James Dean to Georgia O’Keeffe to Albert Einstein—you can often find in book stores.

  6. az Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. When I send out letters, which is truthfully not often enough, I actually like to embellish the envelope and sometimes scent the paper. It’s not that I’m a geek, but there’s something about knowing someone out there is thinking about you and has spent time in thought, word and ink letting you know. Postcards are great albeit not so private. Since you are a fan of the postcard, you should check out the “Griffin and Sabine” books. They are quite marvelous.

  7. Terry B Says:

    az—I used to be a major embellisher of envelopes. And I still do like to add the occasional goofy comment or glue stick some random thing to it. Daughter Claire is a great letter writer and often lavishly decorates her envelopes.

    And I just looked up Griffin & Sabine. The books sound quirky and lovely—will have to check them out. Also puts me in mind of a wonderful book, 84, Charing Cross Road. The slim volume is a true story told in exchanged letters over a period of 20 years between a brash, impoverished New York writer and a reserved antiquarian bookseller in London. This is one of the most charming books I’ve ever read—I will have to give it its own post one of these days.

  8. Rosemary Potatoes: Little spuds, big taste — Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] In praise of snail mail. Vintage postcards, a smart ad campaign and our second president remind me of the simple pleasures of letter writing, at WTF? Random food for thought. […]

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