The history of letter writing

The history of letter writing

A letter says more than a text message and writing letters has a tradition that goes back thousands of years. © Studio Annika, GettyImages

Dear Reader! Finding a self-written letter or a beautiful postcard in the mailbox is always something special. A letter shows us that someone was thinking of us and took the trouble to put their thoughts on paper by hand. In times of messenger services and emails, the value of a lovingly written letter increases. Something handwritten in the mail means more to us than a text, tweet, or Facebook message. In addition, letter writing has a long and eventful history and we want to tell it today.

Different times, different letters

According to the ancient historian Hellanicus, the first handwritten letter was written around 500 BC. Sent by the Persian Queen Atossa in 200 BC. The first letters we know of were written and sent in Egypt. People communicated with each other over long distances using hieroglyphs. The art of letter writing was also used in ancient India, Rome, Greece, Sumeria and China. Some books of the Bible were composed of letters.

In ancient times, writing was done on various materials such as wood, wax or metal, ceramics, animal skin or papyrus. And in Greek mythology, Acontius communicated his marriage intentions to Cydippe by carving appropriate words into the peel of an apple. In recent centuries, letters have mostly been written by hand on paper or with a typewriter.

Even today, letters are still very popular, especially for conveying information, messages and kind regards - even in their more succinct versions. Write postcards from vacation, for special occasions such as weddings or Christmas Design your own cards: When it comes to a handwritten message, it's often about the beautiful form and not just the content.

Writing letters as a privilege

For much of human history, only a few people were able to learn to read and write. For this reason alone, a large proportion of people were unable to communicate by letter. In addition, the utensils needed to write letters were expensive and only rich people could afford to write letters. Even in the Middle Ages, writing letters was primarily reserved for the wealthy and educated. Nobles hired scribes to write letters on their behalf. These letters were often written in Latin and were characterized by a special character calligraphy out of.

Over the course of modern times, letter writing became more and more widespread. Literacy rates increased and the cost of writing letters decreased. When printing was invented in the 15th century, the easier production of books and other written materials contributed to the spread of letter writing. From this point on, a lot happened in terms of sending letters. A standardization of correspondence began. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the postal system finally developed, forms and envelopes were introduced, and writing and sending letters became easier and more convenient.

It wasn't just in the digital age that letter writing experienced a slump. As new forms of communication such as telegrams and later the telephone emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, writing letters became less interesting and postal traffic declined. However, technological progress was never able to completely eliminate correspondence. A handwritten letter is something very special, especially in times of numerous faster communication options.

Between private and public

Letters have always been used for more than just private purposes. It was also always used for political or diplomatic goals or for commercial purposes. Writing letters could also be a means of exchanging ideas with people who shared similar interests or practicing polemics and self-expression. In the 17th century, the love letters of a nobleman and his sister were published. Similar to what we see today on social media channels when stars and starlets publicly show parts of their private lives, their letters were constructed with great attention to detail so that an audience would be happy to read what was written down. Letters became a form of communication that moved between the public and private spheres and provided interesting insights into worlds of emotions and thoughts.

In various eras, letter writing was even considered an art form or literary genre. For example, during the great age of letter writing in the 18th century, the epistolary novel became a popular genre.

Letters of historical significance

Many a letter was even able to go down in history and initiate or announce great things. Martin Luther explained his theological objections to the Catholic Church in a letter to Pope Leo X in 1520. Charles Darwin first hinted at his thoughts on the origin of species in a letter to his best friend. When Winston Churchill's secretary suggested in a letter that he should conclude an agreement with Nazi Germany, he also replied in a handwritten letter: “I am ashamed of you for writing such a letter. I give it back to you – to be burned and forgotten.” If Churchill had shown less greatness and responded differently, the history of Great Britain would probably have been different.


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