Thursday, 5 April 2012

The end of the letter?

Postal services are dying the world over.

In the States the USPS is closing a swathe of rural post offices, and in the UK the cost of letter delivery is about to skyrocket rendering first class mail unaffordable.

In Australia the personal letter service still exists, but in an attenuated form - no Saturday delivery - a single delivery anytime during the business day, and no next day delivery except for mail in the State and Territory capitals and a few other larger towns. Subsidised by the parcel service, at least it's affordable, at $0.60 for a standard letter.

The demise of the letter service has implications for historians of the recent. Before the advent of the penny post - the cheap universal postal service - from the middle of the nineteenth century people did not write letters.

There was of course official correspondence and the occasional personal letter between the great and the good and their spouses, but on the whole people didn't write letters due to the lack of a reliable delivery service, cost, and a lower spread of literacy.

Come the nineteenth century we of course see a rise in literacy and with the penny post letter writing. However because the post was still slow these letters tend to be definite epistles, describing what people have seen and done and in effect act as eyewitness accounts of the times.

And people wrote a lot - if for example you take a look at the Frank Kelmsley blog - a reposting of the diaries of a Canadian soldier in Europe during the first world war the first thing that is remarkable is just how many letters he received.

They also wrote about things - for example Robert Byron's letters home Beijing which give a picture of life among the foreign community in 1930's Peking.

Nowadays with Skype and email people no longer write letters. And because of the immediacy of communication they no longer write long letters - people are more likely to recount matters in a Skype call and only write emails as short notes.

And this has definite implications for the business of history. In one sense today's Robert Byron might well blog about his experiences but then blogging is a public forum and they may be inclined to some reticence on occasions ...

And in this we somersault back to the eighteenth century and earlier where we are reliant on people's diaries and on official correspondance to work out what people thought and felt about matters ...

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