Don’t Forget to Write! Why Letters and Cards Are More Important Than Ever
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Next door to the Hamburg factory where luxury-goods manufacturer Montblanc produces its fountain pens and other writing instruments, you’ll find an “autograph library.”
There, enshrouded in glass as part of a permanent exhibition in what is known as Montblanc Haus, are the signatures of authors, artists, musicians, and other notable people—some known for using Montblanc pens, others not. They’re found on handwritten letters from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Albert Einstein, Ian McKellen, and Karl Lagerfeld. The idea isn’t to tantalize with saucy secrets as much as to revel in less-ephemeral ephemera from a time before handwritten communication began its long digital erasure.
“The ideal arrangement would be 10 seats together + 2 separate,” novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald scribbled to his assistant about tickets he wanted her to purchase, the late 1930s equivalent of a text message. “But at this hour the main point is the best seats.” Other letters on display are less quotidian, offering words of apology, advice, philosophy, or affection. “And for you, it ain’t necessary to tell you how much love I send,” painter Frida Kahlo closed a 1943 note to art dealer Julien Levy.
The executives behind Montblanc Haus are quick to point out that it’s an “experience,” not a museum. In 2022, when almost all communication is digital, they view these written relics as inspiration; their goal is to get visitors to compose letters again.
“How do we inspire people to put pen to paper at a time when most people don’t do that and you communicate through WhatsApp, social media, all that?” asks Alexa Schilz, the director of brand heritage and sustainability. “We want everyone who visits Montblanc Haus to leave with the sense of the value that handwriting brings to them.”
It’s a simple fact that handwritten letters offer a sense of tactility and permanence, especially now that texts and Instagram posts are quickly buried under newer ones. Vincent Montalescot, Montblanc’s chief marketing officer, often asks people if they have a box at home in which they keep letters, journals, and similar keepsakes, “and 99% of the time they say yes,” he says. He then asks, “Do you have a box where you keep your WhatsApp messages, SMS? And they say no. The emotion is completely different.”
Aside from Montblanc’s business goals—the company, after all, manufactures and markets pens—is there any indication of a comeback in letter writing, akin to the resurrection of LPs despite streaming music’s dominance?
“Yes, yes, yes,” says author Daniel Post Senning, the spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute and great-great-grandson of its namesake etiquette maven. “Is it still relevant? Are people still doing it? Is there a bit of a revival? Absolutely. The act of handwriting something is so personal.”
Post Senning, who advises businesspeople and others on matters of decorum, says there are some situations where a letter is the best form of communication—one far superior to any digital alternative: expressing gratitude for a gift when you’re unable to do so in person, thanking a colleague for a dinner they made at home, following an in-person job interview, and, of course, offering condolences.
“A handwritten note is a really powerful tool to have in your toolbox,” Post Senning says. “People underestimate the response to a handwritten thank-you note.”
There’s evidence that the social isolation associated with Covid-19 led some people to return to old-fashioned letter writing. According to a survey conducted by the US Postal Service during the early days of the pandemic, two-thirds of respondents had sent or said they would send mail to family and friends, with 61% saying mail is “extra special” during a time of social distancing.
That’s not to say the USPS found everyone reaching for their stationery. While 17% of survey respondents said they were mailing letters and cards during the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, triple that number said they’d turned to something far more associated with the 21st century: online shopping.
Indeed, it’s difficult to pin down direct evidence of a resurgence in letter writing. Post Senning says it’s happening, but he also acknowledges that his impression “is entirely anecdotal”—and somewhat self-selecting, given that his work revolves around manners. In terms of hard numbers, worldwide sales of luxury writing instruments and stationery totaled $1.53 billion last year, up from $1.43 billion in 2020, but still lower than in each of the previous four years, according to researcher Euromonitor International Ltd.
If the practice of penning letters seems almost dead, it’s worth noting that its obituary has been written again and again—and long before the rise of emails and texting. When the adhesive stamp was introduced way back in 1840, writes Simon Garfield in his 2013 book, ,the “snobbish and the well-to-do” predicted “cheap postage would lead to the equivalent cheapening of an art form best left to the professionals.”
The book also found that a century ago, the reported that “the art of writing letters has been lost,” assigning blame to the telephone, the typewriter, the telegraph, the railroad, and even “the modern art of leisure.”
“The theory from 1919, sounding somewhat familiar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ran as follows: we were too busy with work, travel and the pressures and demands of modern life to sit down for a minute, let alone think and write a letter,” Garfield writes.
But some sentiments just aren’t the same if not expressed through ink on paper. “Handwriting,” according to essayist Joseph Epstein, “is the most personal, and hence most sincere, form of communication.”
Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the Boston mother who lost several sons to the Civil War wouldn’t have had the same effect had it not been drafted by hand: “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”
Those intimidated by putting pen to page—trying to sound as eloquent as Lincoln, that is—needn’t worry so much. A letter doesn’t have to be any more serious or formal than an email. History’s greatest letter writers had some fun, after all, and no, their handwriting wasn’t the best either.
At times they were even a bit dirty.
Writing to a friend in 1818, Lord Byron pretended to be his own valet breaking the news of his master’s death: “His nine whores are already provided for, and the other servants; but what is to become of me?” In 1876, Gustave Flaubert sent a letter to Edmond de Goncourt gossiping about news coverage of a prominent Parisian caught in flagrante with another man in a public restroom: “I think France should give him an official compensation: he has kept us all entertained.” And in 1961, Groucho Marx, thanking the poet T.S. Eliot for an inscribed photo, wrote, “I had no idea you were so handsome. Why you haven’t been offered a lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of the casting directors.”
The overwhelming majority of our communications are destined, of course, to remain electronic. And it’s likely to fall to companies that specialize in stationery and writing instruments to encourage the handwriting of those occasional notes.
The evangelists at Montblanc Haus, where a boutique sells three different letter-writing kits, are making the case by providing a station for visitors to write a postcard of their own. Montblanc Haus will add postage and mail it.
Montalescot says he continues to send postcards to his wife of more than two decades while traveling for work. “It’s a very simple gift, in fact,” arriving in a mailbox otherwise full of invoices and advertising, he says. “It’s pure positive emotion—nothing else.”
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