Letters, We Get Letters
The emotional appeal of a handwritten letter cannot be replaced.
“Let me hear from thee by letters.” — William Shakespeare, c. 1590
One small thing that brings me a great deal of joy is receiving a letter in the mail. And I’d wager that I’m not alone in that.
Amid all of the junk mail, bills, and remnants of our paper-bound society, it’s remarkable how an envelope, some ink, and a specialty sticker can affect us so deeply.
Do you remember ever having a pen pal? It’s a dated concept now, but as a child of a certain era, I recall having a regular correspondence with some faceless kid from another state, wondering when his half of our exchange would arrive and what he’d share of his life with me.
I also remember receiving letters from my grandparents, great-grandparents, and when I was away, my own parents.
Unlike phone calls, which were filled with distractions on both ends of the line, a letter was a concentrated bit of love and attention — a powerful pouring out of the writer’s thoughts and feelings, a narrative of their choosing that gave the recipient a view into their world.
I’ve had opportunities to handle old and rare letters from authors, historic figures, and celebrities. One day, in the Ford Motor Company archives, Dean Weber, the former corporate archivist, showed me three resignation letters side-by-side: Henry Ford’s in 1945, as he ceded control of the company to his grandson; Robert McNamara’s in 1960, as he left the presidency of Ford to become Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy; and Richard Nixon’s terse note upon leaving office in 1974.
While the cynical might few these simply as three pieces of paper with typing on them, what they represent is so much more powerful and personal. First and foremost, each precipitated actions that changed the course of history.
But deeper than that, each is a connection to a particular mindset at the time.
Henry Ford was inextricably part of the company he founded four decades before and he oversaw it sometimes in excruciating micromanagement. Despite his advanced age, it must have been heart-wrenching to have to leave it, even to his grandson.
Robert McNamara was one of the original Whiz Kids at Ford Motor Company, arriving after World War II and helping to put the company back on track. In November 1960, he was named the first president of the company from outside the Ford family. Just a month later, Kennedy offered him a cabinet position. Two career-topping achievements within a month must have been satisfying while leaving him with an excruciating choice.
And Richard Nixon held on to the presidency for as long as he could. When he realized that impeachment was inevitable, he chose the more honorable route of resigning rather than putting the country (and himself) through charges and a trial. He agonized over the decision, and in the end his brief note belies none of the emotion of it.
Touching these documents, knowing that the hands of the authors had once touched them, sent a figurative electric shock through me. For just a moment, I was connected to these giants of industry and politics.
Can the same be said of texts, tweets, or emails?
We’re instantaneously connected around the world, touching people whom we would have never known about, much less met years ago.
But today, our connections are loose ones. We communicate in bits and bytes, electrons and ephemerons, dependent on energy and ether, destined for interactions by algorithmic serendipity or the intense intention for digital attention.
We can respond with a heart, a thumbs-up, or a smiley, but are we that touched by electronic communications, dashed off in an instant? And do those emoji really hold the same depth of emotion that we feel when we read and touch paper correspondence?
Above all else, great leaders understand the power of personal communication and know how attention at the individual level creates a sense of connection — and more importantly, a sense of loyalty.
For the moment, I’d like to reflect on the future of mailed correspondence. Specifically on the fate of the U.S. Postal Service.
You’re probably aware of the unofficial motto of the Postal Service, which is inscribed on the General Post Office building in New York City, as built by McKim, Mead and White:
“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” — Herodotus, 440 B.C.
This is not an exact quote, but a paraphrasing of an excerpt from The Histories, in which Herodotus described the messenger system that the Persians had perfected:
“Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention…Along the whole line of road there are men stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night. The first delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch-race, which the Greeks celebrate to Vulcan. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of Angarum.”
That sounds remarkably like the Pony Express, the American frontier system of mail, that was used two thousand years later.
With a more dispersed and settled population, America is covered by the U.S. Postal Service. Enshrined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the Postal Service is the nation’s oldest “essential” service.
Benjamin Franklin was a postmaster general for the Royal Mail in the pre-Revolutionary War years. And it was his leadership in the Second Continental Congress that led to the establishment of a postal service for the United States.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the modern-day system is something of a lifeline to citizens stuck at home, while also being a daily risk to its workers who handle multiple pieces of mail. In addition to the health risks faced by its workers, the service expects to lose more mail volume as a result of the pandemic — all while nearing another fiscal cliff under a hostile administration. The current postmaster general has made the case for stimulus funds.
Delivering stimulus checks to Americans and handling voting by mail may help, but will these measures be enough to rescue its legacy? Many Americans are doing their part as people rush to buy stamps.
In my estimation, as front-line personnel, postal workers are heroes just as healthcare workers are. They may not be saving lives literally, but the service they provide improves daily life, whether it’s the receipt of a check, a birthday card, or a heartfelt letter.
“Carrier of news and knowledge
Instrument of trade and industry
Promoter of mutual acquaintance
Of peace and of goodwill
Among men and nations
Messenger of sympathy and love
Servant of parted friends
Consoler of the lonely
Bond of the scattered family
Enlarger of the common life”
— Charles W. Eliot, 1911
How might you promote peace and goodwill, or console the lonely, create a bond with scattered family or enlarge common life?
I’d suggest starting with writing a letter. It could be to colleague, a mentor, a friend or a family member.
Now that you have more time on your hands, buy some stationery (or just use whatever you have at hand), and savor the art of writing a letter.
If you’re stuck and don’t know to whom to send a letter, I’ll make it easy. Send one to me (see the address in the newsletter footer, if you receive the newsletter). If you’re within the U.S., I’ll write back.
“Pandemic pen pal” has a ring to it.
Can you think of someone who might like this newsletter? Why not send it to them?
Timely: Present Tense
“The great secret in life [is] not to open your letters for a fortnight. At the expiration of that period you will find that nearly all of them have answered themselves.” — Arthur Binstead, 1909
While we spend more time on screens, one unlikely suspect is trying to make it easier to lessen the burden: Facebook just introduced “Quiet Mode” to help you stop using Facebook. (The Next Web)
While you’re there, though, it seems like you’re delving more into news than controversy. New data from CrowdTangle shows that engagement for national and local news sources on Facebook is exploding during the coronavirus pandemic, while engagement with hyper-partisan publishers is hardly growing. (Axios)
If you think video chat is safe, think again. Over 500,000 Zoom accounts were sold on hacker forums on the Dark Web. (Bleeping Computer)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“[He] put that which was most material in the postscript.” — Francis Bacon, 1625
While we’re thinking about the Postal Service, here are 12 things you should know about the U.S. Postal Service, like famous people who once held postal service jobs, whether dogs are really a menace to postal workers, and the role of the USPS in fighting crime. (Mental Floss)
In the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human. Jill Lepore on what our tales of contagion say about us. (The New Yorker)
In September 1820 twenty-four-year-old John Keats, along with his friend Joseph Severn, a painter, fled England and headed to Rome, hoping that the air would ease his worsening tuberculosis symptoms. When his ship, the Maria Crowther, reached Naples at sunrise on October 21, an unforeseen ten-day limbo was forced upon him, the ship stuck in the harbor under quarantine. It gave him time to write “A Letter from Quarantine.” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Listening / Reading
Of that glad year that once had been,
In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,
The noble letters of the dead:
And strangely on the silence broke
The silent-speaking words.” — Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1849
🎧 The Postal Hub Podcast is the podcast for the mail and express industry. Hosted by Ian Kerr, each episode features interviews with leaders and influencers in the postal and parcel worlds. They discuss the latest developments and innovations that are changing the delivery world.
📘 Poor Richard’s Almanack is a classic by Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the postal service. Originally published in 1732, it contained all sorts of interesting information such as the calendar, weather predictions, sayings, poems and demographics. It also included recipes, trivia, advice, aphorisms, and proverbs about industry and frugality that still stand true today.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.