Thursday, Dec. 7 is National Letter Writing Day, an opportunity to sit down and write some actual hard copy correspondence. In today’s world of email, texts and tweets, letter writing is quaintly old-fashioned if not a completely lost art. When was the last time any of us received an actual letter from someone? Or wrote to a friend or family member?
Letter-writing is not the only lost art over the past few decades. As we’ve moved from print to digital, from typewriters to smart phones, much has been lost along the way. Here are just a few things that have transitioned from mainstream life to cultural niche in our fast-paced, 21st century world.
If you talk to older generations, many of them will bemoan the decline in handwriting, and will tell you about how they learned penmanship in grade school. By the 1980s, word processing had replaced handwriting as the go-to skill, and school children began learning the placement of typewriter keys (J-U-J-U-J-U). By the 21st century, some people were even beginning to pronounce cursive writing as dead, which might represent the triumph of what linguists call “electronically mediated communication.”
In late November, the New York Times reported on the passing of Mary Adelman, who for decades owned a typewriter repair shop in Manhattan. The typewriter long ago ceased to be the instrument for writers, but Adelman’s passing was a stark reminder of the craft that went into keeping up a typewriter. It hasn’t been all that long since people were versed in the language of escapements, carriage strings and sticky keys. As a mechanical object, a typewriter needed mechanical upkeep—but you knew how it worked and could rely on it to do what you needed it to do.
As a society, it’s possible we print more today than we ever have in the past, so printing is certainly not a dead art. But printing in the digital era is arguably no longer the same art of movable type—an invention traditionally credited to Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century but that actually began in the Song Dynasty in China in the 11th century. Most printing today involves packaging digital files and sending them to an electronic device that puts a pattern of ink on a page. But not too long ago, and for certain niche jobs today, printing was a mechanical process that involved physically setting plates.
Time for Reflection
Granted, “time” is neither an art nor a craft, but it most certainly has been lost when it comes to communications over the past few decades. Twenty years ago, if you sent someone a letter, you understood it would take a few days for the post to arrive, and then a few more days (at the earliest) before someone could reply. Now, if someone doesn’t text you back within an hour, you start feeling paranoid that they might be either in the hospital or angry with you. Electronic communications demand a speedy reply—and with that demand, we lose the ability to pause and reflect and think through what we want to communicate in return. Sometimes with communication, there’s nothing quite like taking a few moments of reflection.