From the "Mailstrom"

Tidbits, this 'n' that from around the web about letters and letter-writing, selected by Lex editors, Gary and Lonna.


"Letters are the lifeblood of history"

December 22, 2009

So says a review of Yours Ever: People and Their Letters a newly-published book by Thomas Mallon that's been almost 20 years in the making. From Abraham Lincoln to Sigmund Freud, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ann Landers, Mallon explores the world of letters, in commentary and examples. The publisher says "Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature – a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art." We have it on order at the local library and we'll be reporting more on it soon. We're excited to check it out, not only for the book itself, but because LEX is mentioned in it!

Location, location, location

December 14, 2009

Could it be that Santa's gotten fed up with the weather at the North Pole? That would be one explanation of why the USPS' traditional Operation Santa program has been changed this year. A darker one is that the way the program was run almost allowed a registered sex offender access to the addresses of children writing to Santa. And simple mail volume is also being blamed for moving the postmark of "North Pole" mail from Fairbanks (15 miles from the town of North Pole, Alaska) to Anchorage. Opinions on the changes range from the straighforward [link no longer active] to the outraged.

Keeping it real

December 1, 2009

That's the focus of a recent article [link no longer active] in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail about people in their 20s and 30s who write real letters. The article focuses on finding pen pals through Internet groups, but touches on some of the well-known advantages of writing by paper, including longer communications, learning about the lives of people one wouldn't have the chance to know in person, the thoughtfulness of taking time to write and mail letters, and the honesty that can come from sharing with compatible strangers (a subject that's continued in the reader comments below the article) .

"I have now attained the true art of letter writing"

November 19, 2009

Mention "classic letter writers", and many people (including the editors of letter compilations over the years) think of Jane Austen. So it may come as a surprise (it did to us) to know that only 160 of her letters survive, about 5% of those she likely wrote. Most were written to her sister Cassandra, who destroyed the majority of them and censored many of the rest, apparently fearing that her sister's freewheeling way with words would cast a negative light on the Austens. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York has almost a third of them, and they're featured in A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy through next March. Click on "Selected images" to see several of the letters in thumbnail form; clicking on the thumbnail brings up a full view. The cross-written letter (at the bottom of the first page of images) is especially interesting. There's also a review of the exhibition in The New York Times; thanks to Lexer Diane who alerted us to this article.

"A Letter is Better!"

November 9, 2009

Sometimes it can seem like the USPS isn't very interested in real mail, the kind that includes letters. From the corner mailboxes being taken out, to the low rates for bulk advertising, one can sometimes get the impression they'd be happier if bins of commercial flyers and brochures were all they had to deliver. But that's not true of everyone in the USPS, as this article [link no longer active] from the Waynesboro NewsVirginian shows. Kevin Blackford, the Postmaster of Stuarts Draft, Virginia came up with an idea to get kids writing – he gave fourth-grade students stamped envelopes, and their teacher encouraged them to write letters. The result was so positive that Blackford is presenting "A Letter is Better!" at state conventions [link no longer active] of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States.

Pass it on

October 28, 2009

Does the idea of swapping things through the mail appeal to you? If so, check out Swap-Bot, where you can join swaps of anything from decorated envelopes to cemetery photos to craft supplies to postcards to chocolate to healing stones to stationery to handmade earrings to magnets to stickers to teabags to insights to ATCs to matchboxes to recipes to...

There are hundreds of swaps going on at any one time, most with a very small number of participants, usually 5 or fewer. Swap partners are randomly assigned from those who sign up as interested, you can start your own swap, and a rating system helps keep problems to a minimum. There are groups and forums and a blog, too. Just reading through the list of swaps is fascinating and should whet your appetite for getting into the action.

Getting ahead of ourselves

October 19, 2009

If you've been to this page in the last week or so, you may have noticed the entry below, about sunspots and things going wrong, being dated October 27. Not quite... it must be the cool weather and early snow this year that makes it seem that late...

It must (not) be sunspots

October 7, 2009

Often when it seems lots of things are going wrong at the same time, whether mechanical failures or odd behavior, someone will say "It must be sunspots." Well, that can't account for it at the present, with the sunspot count the lowest in a century. Personally, we think objects get together at night and coordinate their malfunctions – that's what all those odd little creaks and groans in houses and apartments are, it's their stifled laughter as they make their nefarious plans. Luckily we had two backups of the LEX subscriber data base, since among the current string of breakdowns we're experiencing (we're up to 7 in the last few weeks) were a flash memory backup drive on Sunday, followed by the Blue Screen of Death and a day of total unresponsiveness on the LEX computer on Monday. (Another fortunate thing is that Issue 20 was sent to the printer Monday morning, so that day didn't delay us; it will be in the mail next Thursday.) We may have revived the computer, but you can bet we'll be updating those two backups every time we make any changes to the data base!

Five different shades of navy

September 27, 2009

There are many types of paper one can use for letters and notes – from lined tablets to handmade sheets, from the blank sides of junk mail to self-enhanced greeting cards. For some people in New York, custom engraved stationery is where it's at. Called "social papers", with price tags to match the name, they can cost several dollars per card and envelope, often more, in part because of the individual dies [link no longer active] used. The result, for those who can afford it, is sometimes compared to a wardrobe – and like a wardrobe's contents, much of the fun can be had with a smaller bite [link no longer active] out of the checkbook.

Another way to recycle

September 15, 2009

Recently we were leafing through the book Flea Market Finds in search of inventive ways of using items we see at garage sales. One of the suggestions caught our eye – mounting old mailboxes on the wall in a child's bedroom. Socks and underwear, or rolled up magazines, can be stored inside; the hook on the hinged door can be used for hanging up coats. (Of course, there's another use – write so many letters that you have to put up an extra box to hold all the replies!)

Cachets with cachet

September 9, 2009

For most mail artists, the activity is fun and challenging, but not particularly profitable, and usually not meant to be. But for David Dube of Montana, what started as a hobby has turned into something a bit more. Dube now draws cachets for first-day covers, and has a subscriber base among stamp collectors.

To the right noble and valorous correspondents

August 30, 2009

Tired of starting your letters with "Dear [Name]" and wondering how to end a letter without sounding like an impersonal business? Consider some of the more elaborate and flowery openings and closings of the medieval era, reproduced here.


August 22, 2009

Each year we receive a notice about our college reunion coming up – sometimes a month or so in advance, sometimes much more. This year is one of the much more, and features a new twist we haven't seen before – it's a packet of 6 postcards, each featuring a letter of the word "Reunion" (one postcard has 2 letters) and a snappy slogan ("R is for Reconnect", etc.) On the message side is a phrase related to the slogan ("Let's Reconnect at Reunion 2010!") and room for a message. Instructions on the outside of the packet tell us to add a note of our own to each one, find the addresses of 6 of our classmates at the college's alumni site, and mail them the postcards. Of course, if the addresses are on the site, that means the alumni people have also mailed the packet to those 6 addresses. We're assuming they hope that getting personal mail will make a bigger impression than the bulk-mailed packet. They may be right!

One down (or rather, still up), 174,999 to (perhaps) go?

August 17, 2009

Across the U.S. the familiar blue mail boxes are being removed. In one town, though, people decided not to take it lying down. The town officials of Otisfield, Maine waged a campaign [link no longer active] that included blocking the mail box with their bodies in the daytime and machinery at night; last week the USPS decided after a review to leave the mail box in place.


August 9, 2009

Usually when one writes a letter, the intent is to clearly communicate something to the recipient. In the case of Robert Patterson and Thomas Jefferson, however, it was exactly the opposite. Both men were interested in codes, and Patterson developed what he considered a perfect code – easy to write, easy to figure out if one knew the key, and impossible to make head or tail of if one didn't. Transcribing an approximation of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence using his method, he sent a letter to Jefferson in his code, and as far as is known it took until this decade (with the help of a computer) before anyone deciphered it. There's an article about the code with a photo of the letter in The Wall Street Journal.

On the block?

August 4, 2009

It's not just the current recession that's causing post offices to be closed, although apparently there's no big rush of people turning to the mail for affordable entertainment or communication. E-mail, text messaging, and all the electronic "social networking" is taking its toll, too. (Oddly, we haven't noticed any big decrease in the amount of junk mail being delivered – but most of that goes through Bulk Mail Centers, not "regular" post offices.) About 10% of the local post offices in the U.S. are being considered for closure, and a list of 700 was recently generated and posted online. It's not entirely clear from this story that these are particularly at risk, but that's probably the case.

Makes them kind of greasy, though...

July 17, 2009

Mark Twain is reputed to have said "Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint." We've recently been making a data base of information from a health newsletter we get, and doing a spellcheck this week we find we've invented various new foods (bet your mother never told you to eat your croccoli) and diseases (hormoon imbalance, which we figure is the cause of werewolves). One record is particularly relevant to letter writers – we find that supplemental flax oil can help with the problem of thin mails...

The check is in the... uh, park

July 13, 2009

Next time you need an excuse because you didn't mail something on time, you can let the recipient know it'll be along... eventually. Maybe in 35 years [link no longer active] or so. Recently a thank-you note that was written in 1974 and mailed within a city in Iowa was found in a park in Brooklyn, and sent, belatedly, to its original addressee. So the next time the mortgage or rent payment is overdue... well, maybe that's not such a good excuse to try after all...

We can do that!

July 9, 2009

Katy Wolk-Stanley challenges [link no longer active] everyone to write a real letter. Sounds like a good idea to us!

A letter a day keeps...

June 22, 2009

Well, we're not sure what it keeps away, but that's what Carla is doing over at her blog – writing a letter a day during 2009. Along the way she's also sharing her thoughts on letter-writing in history and in the present, stationery, stamps, and other topics familiar to anyone who's serious about letters (or just finds them fun!) There's lots of good reading there, and lots of links to other interesting sites, so when your fingers are tired from holding a pen, let your mouse do the walking and check out some of her great site content.

It's here...

June 12, 2009

According to some web sites, a weather expert is predicting our area will be having "a year without a summer." The actual article being referred to seems elusive, but the June temperatures make it easy to believe whether anyone said it or not. In any case, as far as LEX is concerned, Summer is here: Issue 19 is back from the printer. That means we'll be labeling and stuffing this weekend, and dropping it in the mailbox on Monday.

Letters & Journals

June 2, 2009

That's the tentative title of a new national magazine being planned by Jackie Flaherty. It will debut late next year or early in 2011, and be about – can you guess? – letters and journals. As part of the preparation for the launch, Jackie's put together a couple of surveys about letter and journal activities to help shape the magazine. To fill them out, go to the survey pages [link no longer active] of her blog; you can be anonymous or you can sign up to be notified when the magazine's coming out. Also check out her main blog for more information about the magazine and her related activities, including visits to stationery stores and the National Stationery Show.

9000 postcards

May 15, 2009

If you are in the New York area, there's still time to take in the exhibit [link no longer active] of 9000 postcards collected by photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 25. Or you can view a selection of postcards online – the men's bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park in the 1920s, a birds eye view of Lincoln, NE in 1906, and a futuristic vision of New York skyscrapers with building-top trains and hovering airplanes. The exhibit also includes some of Evans' own photographs taken in postcard style, such as a a view of Easton, PA in 1935.

Postal food drive

May 5, 2009

This Saturday, May 9, is the annual "Stamp Out Hunger" day, when letter carriers will be picking up donations. Just put non-perishable items (no glass containers) in a paper bag by your mailbox, and your carrier will pick it up and deliver it to local food shelves. In some areas a a blue plastic bag for food donations will be delivered in the mail this week. Here's one of many web sites [link no longer active]with more information.

National Card and Letter Writing Month

April 26, 2009

There's still time to enter Samara O'Shea's National Card and Letter Writing Month Essay Writing Contest [link no longer active]. Write an essay about a letter that you've kept for a long time, and you could win a gift certificate for personalized stationery, or signed copies of Ms. O'Shea's books on letter writing and journal keeping. The contest closes May 1, so there's only a few more days to send in your entries. The author also has a web site [link no longer active]which tracks her resolve to write a letter or a card a day this month as well as other letter-related topics.

Stamps for a cause

April 20, 2009

Canada and Australia are among almost 30 countries issuing stamps designed to raise awareness of global warming (increasingly called climate change, as the melting polar ice caps may actually decrease temperatures in some areas due to increased clouds and precipitation). The Canadian stamps [link no longer active] feature wildlife photography of a polar bear and an Arctic tern (an amazing bird that migrates from one pole to the other twice a year), and the Australian stamps [link no longer active] highlight a snow petrel and an iceberg. The stamps are part of an international effort initiated by Chile and Finland to use postal stamps to remind people of the imminent threats faced by wildlife in polar regions, and ultimately other species connected in the web of life.

Letters to (and from) a hero

April 9, 2009

Reading comic strips like Zits, where the characters sometimes text-message each other in the same room, one could get the impression that young people don't even know what a letter is. But a recent book, Girl, Hero by Carrie Jones, shows otherwise. Caught in a thoroughly unpleasant family and school situation, the teenage protagonist copes and finds her own "true grit" by writing letters to John Wayne. According to teenage reviews it's a powerful contemporary novel, told through letters.

It's that day again

April 1, 2009

After the success of last year's initiative to expand its letter forwarding service beyond the planet Earth, LEX today announced plans to move into another frontier – the correspondence of non-humans. "The idea came to me when the bank returned a deposit," said Chief Accountant and Head Bricklayer Gary Marvin. "They said, 'We can't read your chicken scratches', and I thought, nobody's addressing the mailing needs of chickens. Or guinea pigs, or sparrows, or any of the other species tragically under-served by the U.S. Postal Service." Plans are to begin with smaller creatures, and if that proves successful, move on to larger animals such as eagles, whitetail deer, and armadillos. "We won't be including dogs, though," said Director of Marketing and Picnics Lonna Riedinger. "We don't think their communication style fits with our vision, and besides, they already often use mailboxes on their daily walks."

"On the Air" Mail

March 31, 2009

Interested in how many rubber bands the USPS uses, what some of the strangest items they've delivered are, and other tidbits from the U.S. Postal Service? Check out Your Postal Podcast [link no longer active], a monthly compendium about 8 or 10 minutes long of various things postal.

Finding the lost art

March 22, 2009

You know those family afternoons you can go to at historical societies, where you take part in some pioneer activities that hardly anyone does anymore, like making a broom by hand or turning rose hips into jelly? Apparently letter writing has joined the ranks of those bygone pursuits. Historic Deerfield, a mile of houses from the 18th and 19th century turned into museums, is sponsoring two letter-writing workshops in the next month or so. In The Lost Art of Letter Writing, [link no longer active] you can write a letter with quill pen and seal it with sealing wax; the program is on most weekend afternoons from next week through the end of April. During the week of April 20, Paper, Pen and Ink: The Tools of Letter Writing [link no longer active] has a different letter-related activity each weekday, from making paper and ink to using quill pens. Deerfield is in western Massachusetts and includes a historic inn and many nearby bed-and-breakfasts; the mile-long complex features self-guided tours as well as organized activities and numerous collections, including family letter archives.

Something to read while waiting for Godot

March 15, 2009

Allegedly Samuel Beckett once said that he couldn't come up with a reason to get out of bed in the morning – but he apparently had lots of reasons to write letters, because there are more than 15,000 known to exist. While parts of some have already been included in biographies, now there's a new collection [link no longer active], the first volume of which was recently published.

200 years of letters

March 9, 2009

Australia Post is celebrating its bicentenary this year – it was in 1809 that the first Postmaster, who operated from his home, was appointed. There's a web site [link no longer active] with historical information, including a collection of letters spanning the years, a page where you can submit your own historical letter, voting for the favorite Australian stamp, and other activities. The page with links to the actual letters is a collage whose elements move at different rates as you click through the decades, giving a rather strange 3-D effect, perhaps somewhat like the original theatrical dioramas.

Stamp sense

March 1, 2009

By now you've probably heard that U.S. postage is going up again in May – and we're not the only country where that's happened recently or will happen in the near future, of course. This will probably cause a run on Forever Stamps, that can be bought for 42¢ now and used for 44¢ postage after the increase. There's another way to get discount postage, though, if you're willing to spend a little time looking (and being careful), and an advantage is that you're not limited to the designs on current stamps. People sell lots of older stamps on eBay, and as long as they're not canceled they're still usable – you just have to mix-n-match a little to come up with the right amount for an envelope. (We see this sometimes on letters for forwarding, where people have used a group of 2 or 3 or 6 stamps, years or decades old, to add up to 42¢.) For example, yesterday an auction for $27.84 worth of unused 1992 Elvis stamps sold for $19.32, including shipping. Just find some 13¢ stamps to add and you're all set – or, having saved 9¢ each on these stamps, you can add a current 17¢ stamp and you're still saving. And if you or your recipient is an Elvis fan, that's even better. If you're not particular about the design and write a lot, you might find some big groups – someone yesterday won an auction for $420 worth of 42¢ stamps for $359. Of course, the older the stamp the more likely it's being offered at higher than face value to collectors. And if it seems like too much of a bargain, make sure it's covered by eBay's various guarantees, check the seller's feedback, and if the price looks like it's going to end up amazingly low, don't be surprised if the seller ends the auction early because of "an error in the listing".

The art of letters

February 20, 2009

Local artist Amy Rice is inspired by letters, and one of the ways her inspiration finds expression is in paintings. In these examples she pays homage to Mary Cassatt [link no longer active] and Vermeer, both of whom used the theme of reading letters in their paintings. Ms. Rice uses items ranging from pillows to desks in her artwork; in these cases vintage envelopes form the backgrounds. You may recognize Mary Cassatt, by the way, as being on the 23¢ stamp of a few years ago.

Loster or founder?

February 12, 2009

Probably 9,000 people haven't written essays on this topic since February 3...but the same Google search now yields 27,800 hits. We won't mention them all one by one (which would take, at our usual rate of adding notes here, until roughly when the next millenium is approaching), but here's one with a rather different slant – comments on, and excerpts from, the letters of Arthur Conan Doyle by a man privileged to be reading the originals.

Lost or found?

February 3, 2009

If you type "lost art of letter writing" into Google, it says there are approximately 18,900 hits. Many of them – maybe even most, from a quick tour through some of the hits – are odes to the joys of letters, often with tips for people who aren't quite sure how to start, or restart. Here's one [link no longer active], chosen more or less at random, from the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse...

The sky's the limit

January 24, 2009

No, that's not a reference to the annual postage increases, but a series of stamps to honor the International Year of Astronomy. Designs range from constellations (the Big Dipper is popular) to space exploration to cityscapes with the night sky. Numerous countries are issuing stamps for the occasion, and you can find links to some of them here.

But can you hum it?

January 15, 2009

It's common for journalists and essayists to write about "The Lost Art of Letter Writing". But musicians? Australian composer Dean Brett has written (and won a prestigious prize for) a concerto for violin and orchestra entitled The Lost Art of Letter Writing, first performed in 2007. Four historic letters (two by composers, one by a painter, and one by an outlaw) are interpreted by violin, which takes the role of both writer and recipient. Each movement begins with an excerpt from its letter – we're not sure if it's spoken or musically interpreted because we haven't heard the entire work, but you can listen to an excerpt from the concerto here [link no longer active].

And the envelope please...

January 6, 2009

This year's Graceful Envelope [link no longer active] contest theme has been announced – Address the Environment. It's open to anyone world-wide, with exhibition of the winners online and at the National Association of Letter Carriers headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sometimes the winners are also printed in Scripsit magazine, the journal of the Washington Calligraphers Guild. There are categories for children as well as adults; entries are due by April 30, so there's plenty of time to be creative.

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