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Mining the craft of early letter writers

THE recent increase in the first-class postage rate (Feb. 17), like the one in 1981, occasioned little reaction from the American public -- quite a change from the nation's early history when mail rates were watched like dark clouds on a stormy day. In the late colonial era and 19th century, the mail was the primary means of communication and expensive, forcing the American to learn to write meaningful letters as well as to collect and maintain missives received. Reaching out and touching someone often became historic, passed along from one generation's scrutiny to another. Take Philip Vickers Fithian, for example, a college student in 1770, whose letters to his father were freshman treatises. ``We sup at seven,'' he recounted halfway through one letter. ``At nine the Bell rings for Study; and a Tutor goes through College, to see that every Student is in his own Room; if he finds that any are absent, or more in any Room than belongs there, he notes them down, & the day following calls them to an Account. After nine any may go to bed, but to go before is reproachful. . . . I am, through divine goodness, very well, & more reconciled to rising in the Morning so early than at first. . . .''

Benjamin Franklin used letters to instruct his friends in experiments he performed, such as kitemaking for drawing electricity. ``Make a small cross of two light strips of cedar,'' he wrote in October 1752, ``the arms so long as to reach to the four corners of a large thin silk handkerchief when extended; tie the corners of the handkerchief to the extremities of the cross, so you have the body of a kite, which, being properly accommodated with a tail, loop, and string, will rise in the air. . . .''

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John and Abigail Adams were prolific letter writers -- to friends, public officials, and to one another. Charles Francis Adams, who edited a volume of grandmother Abigail's letters in 1840, could describe everyday matters with a novelist's flair, as illustrated by a letter he wrote to his son from London in 1862: ``It has rained every day at some time in the day for eight or ten days. People begin to look dismal and croak about the crops. To Great Britain every day of sunshine lost is equal to an expense of just so many pounds. The islands never produce breadstuffs sufficient for the consumption of the people annually. They must beg some millions of quarters of wheat at any rate. In bad years they buy just so much more. Hence it is that at this season every bad day sensibly affects the price of stocks. No country ever had a more sensitive thermometer of the weather.''

Frederick Douglass used letters to distill his arguments in behalf of his black people, specifically to advance their education through the creation of an industrial college. ``America could scarce object to it [the college],'' he wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853, ``as an attempt to agitate the public mind on the subject of slavery, or to dissolve the Union. It could not be tortured into a cause for hard words by the American people, but the noble and good of all classes, would see in the effort an excellent motive, a benevolent object, temperately, wisely, and practically manifested.''

Then there were the letters of less notable people who took advantage of low postal rates by 1883 -- 2 cents for a first-class letter, which lasted to 1932 -- to thank mail-order firms for giving them a new lease on life. ``Harness received,'' wrote an Indiana man to Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1896, ``and without examination at office, I took them home and put them on my horse and I am more than pleased with them; they are beyond my expectations, and I must say, if the horse was there with you, you could not have fit him better. A great many of my neighbors have examined them and pronounce them superior to harness bought for $12.00 and $15.00 here. I think you will hear from some of my neighbors soon.''

Americans still write letters today, but unlike the past the mail is dominated by business items. Thus it's doubtful that the social historian examining the late 20th century will be as fortunate as contemporary researchers in finding and mining the craft of the early letter writer.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.