From scribble to chat

Last weekend my two boys wrote an e-mail to grandma who lives in Germany and together we made a beautiful postcard for my twin nieces in Spain who will celebrate their birthday next week. Grandma responded within minutes even though she was over a hundred miles away and we know my nieces will get the card within five days, because that is just how reliable the postal services are today.

That made me think of my great-grandmother who set sail with her husband in 1909 to Aceh (Indonesia), then known as the "outback" of the Dutch East Indies. I imagine she and her mom cried bitter tears, knowing that they would not see each other again for a long time. A letter could take months to get from Aceh to Amsterdam, and a telegraph office had not been installed there yet. By the time my great-great-grandmother read the news about the birth of her first granddaughter, the child already set her first steps on the other end of the globe.

In the middle ages, communication was even worse. Paper was expensive, the roads were bad and dangerous, and the majority of the population was illiterate. Hence, only the rich and powerful would be able to write a letter and have a courier bring the valuable message to its destination. Only tough and brave men became a courier. They had to be able to walk long distances in every kind of weather, and they had to know how to handle a sword to protect the letters and their valuable contents (money, strategic political messages, etcetera) from bandits. Even though it was a dangerous job, it was also highly lucrative: the recipients paid up to 25 cents for a letter. That does not sound like much, but considering that a workman would earn about 50 cents a day, that is a lot of money, corresponding to about €25.- (USD 33.-) in today's money. Just imagine that you would have to pay that amount for receiving just one letter!

By the 1600s —the Dutch Golden Age— sending letters had become more commonplace. Trade had boosted the need for communication. Hence, more people mastered the art of writing and reading, paper became more of a mass product and letter writing became commonplace by the 1700s. In addition, the delivery of the mail became better organized. Independent so-called postmasters set up small companies to deliver the mail. Couriers no longer walked their routes but would drive by horse along fixed routes. Part of the mail was transported by stagecoaches that also transported passengers. However, the horse-drawn barge known as a "trekschuit" was by far the preferred means of transport for both people and mail. The "trekschuit" was fast, clean, reliable and most of all it was comfortable. The "trekschuit" was so popular that it did even delay the introduction of the railway. The Dutch simply had no need for it.

By the 1750s, the free mail market was monopolized by "stadhouder" William III. In 1799, the French who at the time occupied the Netherlands nationalized the postal services. At first, it was just a lucrative way to fill the empty treasury of the King; however, by 1850 the first "Postwet" (postal law) was issued emphasizing the role as a public service of the State Postal Services. More post offices and fixed routes were opened so that even the eastern provinces, until now badly served by the post companies, could count on a reliable and affordable postal service.

At the same time, the first stamps were launched in the Netherlands. In England, sir Rowland Hill had already introduced the idea of having the sender pay instead of the receiver in 1840. The first Dutch stamp was issued in 1852 and shows the profile of King William III.

The same sir Hill had introduced a wrapper for the letters on which one could write the address and put the stamp. This sounds much as an envelope but was by far not the handy, pre-gummed variants we know today. They came as sheet you had to cut up yourself in about 12 wrappers. No need to say that only the rich could afford such a waste of paper and time. Ordinary people would simply fold the letter and write the address on the back, without bothering that everybody could read the contents. Those who did bother and had a bit more to spend would seal the letter with wax. The envelope did not become popular until the early 1900s, when improvements in envelope machines finally made it possible to produce an affordable pre-gummed envelope.

But soon writing would cease to be the main form of communication. Even though it had improved over the years, it still was utterly slow when it came to long distances. This problem was solved by the introduction of the telegraph. What a shock that must have been to our ancestors! Instead of writing a letter that took months to travel the world, messages could be sent and received the same day over thousands of miles and at an affordable cost. The telegraph became an instant success, albeit only for a brief period.

Soon it was eclipsed by the introduction of the telephone that made it possible to actually hear a beloved relative on the other side of the globe, instantly. What magic! At first, the investment to get yourself connected was high, but by the 1960s, almost everyone in the Netherlands had a phone.

Today, we can connect to everyone we like, whenever we like and however we like, by written word, voice, or image. It has made our world smaller and communication faster and efficient. And that is great. However, with it some of the magic has also gone. Who, today, takes the time to write, to ponder the thoughts, to stimulate the reader's mind with well-chosen words... Who, today, knows the handwriting of the people they correspond with? Who, today, knows how to appreciate not knowing certain things from each other, not being available 24 hours a day...?

Maybe we should introduce a global "Letter Writing Day" at which everybody switches off their modern means of communication and writes a letter, just like our great grandparents would have to someone dear. I bet everybody would end up realizing that there are things that are best said in a letter that cannot be expressed in an e-mail or a phone call. You know what? Let's do that. Let's say that October 1 is Letter Writing Day. I know who I will write today, do you?