Nesting: Letters

Writing letters is a gift given by my parents: thank you notes, hello greetings, birthday cards, and just because letters. While book club reading Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison, I discovered pages – not paragraphs – pages about letter writing.

An intriguing letter writing concept presented by Kerrison’s telling of Martha’s education indicates that young girls and young women were instructed in “…the art of writing letters at all stages of life.” Implying that letters could be written in different ways depending on their ages. Because the details were not provided, I did some historical digging. Here’s what I found.

  • “Letter Writing in the 1700s” produced a variety of sites with style guides, formats, and example letters.
  • Letters were often carried by friends to recipients.
  • Delivery was often unreliable. The sender would not know whether the letter was received unless a reply or response was sent.
  • It remains unclear how letter writing instruction provided guidance on “writing letters at all stages of life.” More research is required.

Pages 56 through 58 provide instructional insights on such things as how to sit properly while writing letters to fill idle time, time not spent working. Friendships were to be maintained through letter writing. One’s sense of self could be explored and refined. Wrote one letter writer from the era: “The need to write to each other made itself felt almost at the moment when we began to care about each other, the need to satisfy it put the imagination in play, forced ideas to hatch and feelings to be expressed.”

“Letters could also mend ruptures or mourn lost friendships.” (pages 57-58) How often today do we tap into the power of letters? How often do we rely on a pre-printed message – on paper or in e-message-cards? Before technology, before character/letter limitations in message length, letters fed the souls of their writers, expressed recommendations, joys, and angsts, and conveyed grace and thanks.

Before the age of cell-phones, the internet and Facebook, during my college years, I sat in the dorm living room and wrote letters. Letters to high school friends on other campuses. Notes to a great aunt in Wisconsin. Letters to family members. And each week, I’d receive mail. “How is it that you receive so many letters?” I was often asked. To which I replied “You have to send letters to receive letters. And I write letters every week.”

What letters can you write this week?

Who will enjoy hearing from you?

Jana Kemp

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