Just finished To the Letter: a Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield. It outlines the history of letter writing, while noting how the style and purpose of correspondence has changed over the centuries.
It’s also got all sorts of fun facts. Did you know that before the mid 19th century, the recipient of a letter paid for its delivery ? I did not. That seems like a good way to discourage letter writing.
Even with the invention of stamps in the mid 1800s, there was still the problem of what to do with a letter if the recipient was not home. Here’s the transcript of a public notice meant to solve this particular problem –
By Command of the Postmaster General
Notice to the Public
Rapid Delivery of Letters – General Post Office May 1849
The Postmaster General is desirous of calling attention to the greater rapidity of delivery which would obviously be consequent on the general adoption of Street-door Letter Boxes, or Slits, in private dwelling houses, and indeed wherever the Postman is at present kept waiting.
He hopes that householders will not object to the means by which, at a very moderate expense, they may secure so desirable an advantage to themselves, to their neighbors, and to the Public Service.
It’s remarkable how things we take for granted have to be invented in the first place. Of course the postman just drops my letters in my mailbox, what else would he do? Well, before the invention of the home mailbox, he’d have to hope someone was home, wait around for me or give up and take my letters back to the post office. Hurrah for home mailboxes and door slits!
Spread throughout the book is a series of letters between a WWII English soldier and his girl back in England. One of the games such couples would play would be to post “codes” on the back of their envelopes. One, for instance, was SWALK, Sealed With A Loving Kiss.” Some were a bit more racy. Like NORWICH – Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home. Or BURMA, Be Undressed Ready My Angel. It’s amazing the fun stuff you find in random books.
The author ends his book with what he considers the best epistolary sign off ever. The Queen Mother, writing to a close friend during WWII, dispenses with “Sincerely” and instead sign offs with a jaunty eff you to ole Adolf. “Tinkety tonk old fruit, & down with the Nazis.”