I wrote a personal letter a few days ago, something I don’t very often do these days, since we commonly communicate by email or some other electronic means today.
But my Internet and email have been down in recent days, and I resorted to the older way of communicating with distant correspondents, writing a letter. It was a reminder of how much communication has changed over the past few years.
Before the 1990s, if we wanted to communicate with someone who was far away, we would either call by telephone, or write a letter, or send a telegram. In the earliest years of my life we didn’t have a phone, nor did we have access to a telegraph system, so we kept in touch with our cousins and uncles and aunts in California and Washington by writing letters. Writing letters was just a common part of keeping a larger family connected, or keeping in touch with friends across the miles, or sometimes negotiating business deals or agreements.
I first started getting into emailing in 1996. We were living in Woodruff County, Ark., in the county seat of Augusta, Ark., when the Woodruff County Library set up an email system in-house, and began offering free email accounts to those of us who had library cards. I can’t remember my first email address exactly, but it was something like [email protected] I think there was a little more to the domain, but my memory is not coming up with the other part. Emailing became a sizable part of my communications in those days. I had never been a voluminous letter writer, but some of our family wrote letters quite often.
For example, my wife’s mother commonly sent us a letter once a week. I always remember that she didn’t like the time changes. In almost every letter there would appear the comment, “I just wish they would leave this time alone!” Grandma didn’t like having to change from Daylight Savings Time to Central Standard Time and back and forth every year. She was on who thought if it was 6 o’clock sun time, then it was 6 o’clock, and people shouldn’t be intentionally tinkering with the time and supposing it to be 7 o’clock.
I’m remembering how we were taught in school to write letters. We were taught that there is a form for personal letters, and a form for business letters. And for our letter writing we usually stuck pretty close to those forms.
To start a personal letter, we would write Pea Ridge, Ark., or Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in the upper right corner of our letter. Those were the days before it became common to use the two-letter abbreviations for the states. Then, right under the name of the town you would put the date on which you were writing. Next, you would skip down a line, and at the left write Dear James, or Dear Aunt Sybil, or Dear Uncle Gene, as the salutation to whomever you were writing. Following that salutation, you would begin writing whatever you had to say. Then, under the body of your letter, at the right, you would write Yours Truly, (or Sincerely, or Love), and below that you would sign your name.
Business letters were a bit different. At the top, you would center the name of your business (if you were writing for your business), then center your business address, skip a line and center the date of your letter. Then, skip a line and write the name of the business you were writing to, and under that the business address. Then, skipping another line, you would put ATTN and the name of the person who would be receiving your letter (if you knew the name, then skip another line and write Dear Sir, or Dear Madam, or just Sir: For a business letter your closing and name could be aligned left if desired. Later on the style changed a bit so that aligning everything left in letters was considered OK.
For letter writing, penmanship in cursive writing was a very important thing. One of the finer compliments that could be given to a person was that “They have a beautiful hand!” And, by that it was not meant that their hands were attractive or good looking; it was that their handwriting was elegant and neat.
With the appearance of emailing and other forms of electronic communications, it seems that the care for clear and attractive handwriting has seriously diminished. So many emails that I have received had careless spelling, poor punctuation, awkward grammar, obviously having been dashed off hurriedly with no review or corrective editing. Early business colleges, like our old Pea Ridge College in the late 1800s and early 1900s, had cursive penmanship as a major course, very important for the person who aspired to work in a business, keep records for a bank, compose documents in a law office, or care for other important business tasks. Clarity and accuracy were highly important.
Today, it often seems that with all the help of word processors, spell checkers, and grammar and style monitors, we don’t do too well in the areas of communications with elegance and clarity and diplomacy.
Editor’s note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.