When People Wrote Letters

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Youth's Companion Vol. 74 No. 42 (October 18, 1900)

Sarah, named for her grandmother and her great-grandmother before her, innocently believes that she writes letters. She has all the paraphernalia of letter-writing — an inlaid desk, a desk set of Dresden china, a wonderful blotter designed at the School of Decorative Art, stationery with her monogram in blue and silver, seal and all the rest. And she believes that she writes letters, a great many, sometimes a dozen in one morning.

But her grandmother and her great-grandmother could tell her better. They would view with horror her square hieroglyphics, a very few to a page, whereby she conveys her messages, almost never her thoughts or her sentiments, to her many dear friends.

They would exclaim, “My dear child, that which you are writing is not a letter. A letter is an expression of oneself, almost a part of oneself. This is not a part of yourself. Moreover, a letter has its own fine finish, like any good work, its elegant figures of speech, its quotations, its embellishments of style. This has no embellishments of style; and then the waste — the vulgar waste of letter-paper! Only three words to a line, and not one page crossed! Could you but see the letters which we wrote, on fair pages of foolscap, every line filled out!”

In a corner of Sarah's parlor stands a quaint piece of furniture, valued as a souvenir of the past. It is a combination desk and work-table which belonged to her great-grandmother. It is not more than a half-yard square at the top, and a long, stiff bag of green leather, for holding the work, hangs between its four slender, stilt-like legs. Above it are two tiny drawers and the desk, which slides in and out at will and is furnished with a row of compartments for pens and ink and sand.

Her Inmost Thoughts on a Slate.

Seated before this quaint piece of furniture, Great-grandmother and Grandmother Sarah copied their letters — copied, not composed them. The desk and the fine gilt-edged paper, and earlier the great sheets of foolscap, which comprised paper and envelope in one, and the ink and sand were for the finishing touches. The labor of composition, which might involve much waste of material ere perfection was attained, was performed on a slate.

Grandmother and great-grandmother sat for hours with slates in their laps, transcribing their inmost thoughts and reflections and attiring them in elegant garbs of verbiage. Even the domestic and village news, which occupied of necessity space in the epistles, was guilded and made decorative with elegant sentiments, and improved unto the souls and minds of the readers with moral deductions.

The whole slate was filled; then great-grandmother seated herself at the little work-table desk, pulled out the desk part, trimmed her quill pen with her tiny pearl-handled penknife, which was a penknife in those days, opened her inkstand, spread out her paper daintily, put the lines underneath, got ready the sand and the pen-wiper. Then she copied, in the finest handwriting of which she was capable, all that which she had composed on the slate.

Every downward and upward loop was carefully made and beautifully shaded. Specimens of her chirography are still extant; every little “a” has its lovely overcurve and every “s” its undercurve, and all the loop letters are arranged as evenly as soldiers in a slanting run of advance.

When she had copied all which she had composed, down she sat again with the slate, sponged clean for a new instalment, and filled it once more with news and graceful reflections. Then she copied again on her fair letter-paper, sitting at her desk.

One Week to Write a Letter.

An evening or an afternoon was not nearly enough time for her to complete one letter to her satisfaction. Her great-granddaughter's rate of speed in the epistolary art was never attained by her. She would have considered it as wild a dream as a bicycle, and would have been helplessly outraced on letter-paper, as well as on roads.

Often this Sarah of an older and slower generation spent her leisure hours for a week over one letter, and then sent it away with this artless hypocrisy of an opening sentence — artless because her correspondent, having experienced similar throes and labors of composition, understood it as merely a graceful conventionality, intended to relieve the recipient from a sense of obligation and the writer from the imputation of lack of ease and readiness: “I now take my pen in hand for the purpose of inscribing a few hasty lines,” and so forth.

The gentle and ladylike lie was on the very face of the characters, as fine as miniature paintings, as well as in the labored sentiments which they expressed. The recipient was never for a moment deceived, and had always mental visions of the slate and Sarah, perhaps with the midnight candle on the desk, over which she bent with gentle patience, her long side-curls falling over her delicate cheeks and making dancing shadows on the paper, her slender fingers grasping the pen conscientiously after the prescribed fashion, making every letter as painstakingly as if she were painting a flower.

When the letter was finished, it was a veritable little work of art. If there had been a large flow of ideas, and economy as to paper was an object, the lines were crossed and recrossed, until the whole resembled a patchwork of elegant expressions. In spite of the clear chirography, some labor to read such a letter was required, for the crossed characters were confusing to the human eye, which can read in only one direction at a time.

However, Sarah was revealed in her letters — notwithstanding the little overgloss of expression — as the patient, womanly, pious soul that she was, full of sentiments which were noble, if trite; and her moral reflections, discovering the farther side of her daily life and duties, were not to be despised.

When the letter at last was written, carefully revised, and all errors corrected as neatly as might be; when it had been sanded to prevent blotting and folded with the neatest precision, it was sealed and directed and was ready for the mail. Then the elder Sarah felt as comfortably conscious of a piece of work creditably performed as the Sarah of to-day, when she has finished the paper to be read before her club.

“The Tree of Knowledge.”

The elder Sarah had no such outlet for her talents. When she had ideas, her only chance of promulgating them was through the medium of letter-writing to her friends, and that, it must be confessed, was somewhat precarious. Often Sarah's letters, after they were read with fervent admiration by the dear recipient, were delegated to the confinement of a papier-mâché portfolio, and later of a hair trunk “up garret,” until they became possibly food for the mice or the spring bonfire, having first become obsolete — paper, chirography, news, sentiments and all.

Still, the elder Sarah's words and expressions always retained a certain measure of beauty and quaintness, like the obsolete words in the dictionary, which are sanctified by the past use of thought. But fancy the Sarah of to-day, who writes exactly as she talks, inditing a letter after the fashion of her great-grandmother, who never if she could avoid it, used a word or expression which she would have employed in actual conversation with a friend. The present Sarah's sanity would be questioned, and a collection of her letters would make a sorry book, while the former's would yet present a trustworthy picture, not only of the external, but of the internal, life of her day.

Sarah's great-grandmother dwelt in the vicinity of Cape Cod, and had for a time a quaint post-office, in common with the other inhabitants of the little seacoast village. It was a letter-box nailed to the trunk of a great tree on the stage road. Therein the people used to deposit their letters, which were collected by the stage-driver as he passed on his way to Boston, and therein he left the mail on his return. People were honest in those days, or else the heavy sentiments in the letters rendered them undesirable commodities for thieves.

This tree was called “the tree of knowledge,” and knowledge of divers kinds it held and yielded to those who thirsted for it, with no penalty of the law. Surely no other tree in the country produced such goodly fruit of love and loving precepts and Bible wisdom.

In it were stored the letters of the farmer's boy, who had forsaken his hay-fields and cranberry-meadows for the city, and wrote innocently and dutifully home to the old people every fortnight.

Therein at rarer intervals appeared the dashing epistles of the sailor lad, who had turned his back on the salt meadows pink with rosemary, and the codfishing along the stony shores, and gone sailing across the high seas.

In the old tree were stored the letters written by goodwives Dorcas and Mehitable and Maria and Betsey to their married daughters in Boston, and the letters written in return. There, too, were the love-letters written by the young men who had left the village to make their fortune, but whose hearts remained behind in maidens' keeping, and the answering letters from the sweethearts, timidly and sweetly anxious to guard their lovers against the dangers and temptations of the great city.

Sarah's grandmother, at a later date, when the “tree of knowledge” had ceased to yield its harmless fruit of love and wisdom, had still a singular method of sending and receiving her mail. There dwelt, not so long ago, on Cape Cod one Barney Gould, something below the average in endowment of wit, but nothing below it in honesty and faithfulness. He earned his living by carrying letters and parcels for people in the vicinity. Going at a wonderful dog-trot, he dragged his little wagon loaded with letters and packages, back and forth over the country roads, and as far even as Boston.

Speed of Barney, the Letter-Carrier.

Marvelous stories were told of Barney's speed on the road, some even crediting him with a rate of progress exceeding that of a railway train. It is said that the stage-driver sometimes, when the road was clogged with mud or snow and the great wings of the salt wind seemed almost to beat poor Barney from his foothold, would ask him in a spirit of Christian charity to ride, and that Barney would speed past with steadily flying heels, singing out, “Can't stop! In too much of a hurry!”

Now Barney has dog-trotted out of the world, and the “tree of knowledge” has been cut to the stump, which yet bears, monument fashion, an inscription giving testimony as to its past usefulness; and the elder Sarahs' letters are packed away, to have, perhaps, their resurrection in some later spring of epistolary art.

Old fashions revive in everything else — in gowns and caps and household furnishings, in china and flowers and names; why not in letters? Now the Dorothys and the Elizas and the Elizabeths flourish again in their granddaughters and their great-granddaughters; why should not their old grace of letter-writing be revived also?

Sarah's daughter's daughter may some time use the slate for the first rude transcription of her thoughts, and employ her leisure hours in the fine copying thereof. It may become ill bred and bad form to do otherwise. The elder Sarahs' formal phrases and stilted sentiments may again have their turn in the ever circling motion of thought and life, and may blossom anew like the flowers in their old-fashioned gardens.

In the meantime the present Sarah keeps her great-grandmother's desk in her parlor, but she does not write letters.