Few people practise the art of letter writing today. I don’t remember the last time I wrote one. Probably you too. It takes several things to write a good letter: language style, legibility, font consistency, spacing, and flow. Until recently nearly everybody wrote letters. Because there was no better way to speak somebody’s mind.
My grandma had a collection of letters. Stowed away in her cupboard, they looked stained and torn. I remember having once gone through them, curiosity gripping my breath. They offered glimpse into her life. They were from grandpa and after his death grandma kept them close to her heart. Remembering them always bring me to the edge of tears.
I am one of those who indulge in modern technology. So texting, email, Whatsapp are as much part of my life as anyone else’s. But the old-time letters still warm my heart. Perhaps, a lot of people out there might feel the same. Today sending and receiving messages happen in seconds. In ancient times, messengers spent days on the road before taking missives from one king to another. That had been long before post office and letter box came into being.
Persian Queen Atossa wrote the first historically recorded letter in 500BC. However, letters were said to have been in existence long before it; for example, they were mentioned in Homer’s Illiad. Ancient historians including Herodotus and Thucydides referred to them in their works. What we call letters today once were epistles. It is an old English word derived via Latin from Greek ‘epistolē”. It has it origin from ‘epistellein’ meaning ‘send news’. The first English novel, came out in 1740, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is in epistolary form. The style, once very popular in Europe, used series of letters to narrate a story.
Just as humans started settling beyond their immediate neighborhood, letters became important. Over time, written missives became mainstay for personal relationships, running a kingdom, and foreign diplomacy. So messengers came by some social respect. They wouldn’t be held prisoners despite delivering the unpleasant news of an approaching war from a neighouring country. Ancients wrote letters on materials including metal, lead, wax coated wooden tablets pottery fragments, animal skin and papyrus. Roman poet Ovid’s character Acontius used an apple for his letter to Athenian beauty Cydippe.
In the early days, there were no postal system. Britain was the first nation to introduce them and the Penny Black, first adhesive postage stamp, became available to public on 1 May, 1840. It featured the face of Queen Victoria. Before the advent of stamps, the receiver had to pay for the letters. In 1660 Charles II of Britain established General Post Office (GPO), which grew into postal system. Similar GPOs were established across the British Empire. Novelist Anthony Trollope introduced Britain’s famous letter box, ‘Pillar Box’ in 1854. Originally in green colour, they were later painted red in 1874.
Indian Post Office came into being in 1837. The British India Company’s administrator of the province of Sind Sir Bartle Frere introduced Asia’s first adhesive stamp in 1852. The General Post Office in UK stopped operations in 1969, and turned into The Post Office. Modern technology has rendered postal system redundant. It will soon disappear leaving some nostalgia in older generation.