The History of the Letter.
Chances are if you're reading this you're a letter lover, or fan of the handwritten letter. Welcome! Recently, I've become interested in not just the letter itself but the history of the letter. I get to have a lot of interesting conversations about the benefits of letter writing but as a letter collector and writer it got me wondering more about how this all started. And because I don't like to bore the wonderful folks who click over and read a blog here from time to time, that means boiling my curiosity down to two question: What exactly is a letter? And Who sent the first ever letter?
What is a Letter?
Did you ever write an essay in middle-school about "How to Make a P.B.& J Sandwich"? That's Peanut Butter and Jelly for the uninitiated. In this next little bit we're going to take a look at "How to Mail a Letter".
Merriam Webster defines a letter as a "n., a a symbol usually written or printed representing a speech sound and constituting a unit of an alphabet" and "n., a direct or personal written or printed message addressed to a person or organization". Letters can be formal or informal and are written by an individual and addressed to a recipient. They are often dated and sealed in an envelope. Here at Flea Market Love Letters we've no shortage of recommendations for guides on how to write a letter. This guide from 1952 even helpfully illustrates how to address the envelope.
Then a stamp is applied before the letter is deposited with the writers home postal service for dispatch. Curious about the history of Stamps? Don't worry we have a little blog about that cooking but in the mean time, it's good for you to know that up until the 1840s it was actually the recipient who paid for a letter not the letter writer.
But back to 2021...When a letter leaves that postal service office it is stamped with a "Postmark" of the date and then it begins its journey to its destination. This has been the case for decades. There are historians who study the "Killers", or the ink stamps across the stamps, for these envelopes.
Then once a letter arrives at your door it has completed its life cycle. It's gone from the writers desk, to the post office, to the mysteries in between, before landing in your letter box (or mail slot, depending on where you are!).
Hopefully you're still with me. All that matters, I promise. Because it drives home just how many people are involved in helping get your piece of paper across the street or around the globe. And if you're a letter lover, that marvels you -- it certainly amazes me.
Before the invention of the e-mail (or electronic mail) in 1978 they were written using pen and paper. The evolution of pens throughout history includes sharpened wood, to quills and fountain pens, to the modern ball-point. A diehard fan of the handwritten letter still pulls out letter pad and pen in 2021 but there's something to be said for sure about the accessibility of the e-mail as well. Not just the speed and performance but the literal accessibility of the media for individuals who otherwise wouldn't be able to hold and operate a pen to paper. The e-mail didn't kill the letter, is what we're trying to say. It just helped it adapt and arguably: survive.
Who Sent the First Ever Letter?
Easy! Queen Atossa. Don't know who Queen Atossa was? You'd be forgiven. She was the Queen of Persia back in 500 B.C. and most historians agree that she was the first letter writer.
Though her letter(s) didn't survive the legacy of writing to communicate and record certainly did. You see it in the Egyptians with their Papyrus and Hieroglyphics, the Greeks use letters in texts like The Iliad, the Romans had their scrolls, and on and on.
And for a bonus I'll throw in one of the oldest surviving letters written by a Christian which historians and scholars know about. This letter comes from 230 A.D. and comes from Egypt. It is written in Ancient Greek and on papyrus, a type of paper-like material made from the woven stems of a native Egyptian plant. The letter is from one brother, Arrianus, to another, Paulus. You can click here for a translation.
This piece of Papyrus is over 1700 years old. That's pretty impressive when you think about how the oldest letter in the Flea Market archive is just 145 years old. A baby compared to an incredible relic like this.
Okay, okay before I go on any more about paper and pens and letters let's recap:
The two points I wanted to pin at the start were: What is a Letter? A letter is an informal or formal communication method dispatched from one individual to another. And Who Sent the First Letter? Queen Atossa of Persia!
If anything, hopefully something in this blog post will come in handy next time you're at a trivia night and need to win the bonus round!
Get in Touch
If you've enjoyed today's dip into the history of letters, letter writing, and postal history let me know! I'd love to hear from you. Send me an e-mail: email@example.com