The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Image: Public Domain

Image: Public Domain


For a long time, writing letters was the only practical way of communicating over long distances. It was cheap, relatively fast, and allowed for long form writing in a way that telegrams did not. Telegrams were good for extremely important or timely information, but for general stuff, letters were it.

They were either handwritten, which was most popular, or typewritten, if one had a typewriter. (After typewriters were invented.) And in the 20th century (most of it), if you were a frequent letter writer, chances are you or your family definitely sprang for a typewriter.

Brother_typewriter_by_awdean1 CC by-sa 3.0

Image by awdean1, CC by-sa 3.0

Today, short form communication is the law of the land. Quick emails, texts, IMs, DMs, tweets, and Facebook updates, along with photo bursts with captions on Instagram, are the way we communicate these days. There are definitely some advantages to these methods, but something does get lost in translation.

Letters allowed one to dally while writing, and dally while reading. There was no backspace key, so sentences were usually given more thought before being placed on paper. Vocabulary was better. Sentences were longer. And letters were kept, treasured, and re-read, sometimes passed around, depending on content.

I enjoy reading and re-reading letters like I rarely do with even emails (except the good, heartfelt, well-thought-out emails). Holding a letter in my hand gives it a tangible feel. It isn’t just pixels on a screen. Physical letters somehow seem less disposable than digital ones. Harder to lose, harder to part with.

In about another week, I will begin sharing my great grandfather Arthur’s letters from his time in Germany. They will be transcribed, for easy reading, but I’ll include some images of his actual letters, so they feel more real and personal.


Welcome to First Person History!

Photo: Jenny Bristol

Photo: Jenny Bristol


History is my thing. Especially American history. It brings me great joy to immerse myself in primary sources such as census documents, photographs, maps, and, especially, letters.

This blog was inspired by my love of history, and of individuals’ experiences of history. What was life like “back then”? I want to know what people did at home, at work, in school, on vacation. The usual history that is taught doesn’t capture my imagination, but social history does. I discovered this fact in college.

With this blog, I will strive to share primary sources, first person accounts, and the personal side of history—what it was like to live during a certain time, in a certain place. I hope to eventually cover more general historical artifacts, but I will start with something personal.

We will begin with an interesting time in world history, the short time between the end of World War II in 1945 and the forming of two German states in 1949. I will cover my great grandfather’s experience in Germany in 1946.

Soon after V-E Day, various Allied governments probably had some kind of plan in place for helping Germany get back on their feet (or, rather, for guiding their recovery in an Allied-friendly manner). So our government, and others, sent over military forces, and plenty of civilians, to help rebuild.

My great grandfather, Arthur B. Holmes, an architect, was one of them. For a year, he sent my grandmother letters from his time over in Germany, and she kept them all. Her sentimentality now benefits us all.

Arthur’s time in Germany (and his journey over there) began almost 70 years ago, in the latest part of December 1945. I will be transcribing and posting his letters in “real time”, 70 years removed. The letters are approximately a week apart, but there are some longer and shorter gaps. Arthur was a gifted storyteller and writer, and his letters are alternately gripping, amusing, and blissfully mundane.

Stay tuned!