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LeBARON: Losing the art of the letter

  • A letter from James W. Jewell, telling his father what it was like to be a squatter in the 'Guilico Valey' (Sonoma Valley) in 1853.

Hard as it is to believe, there are people living in Santa Rosa who remember when every household had two U.S. Mail deliveries every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

It’s one of those Old Older things, like penny parking meters, kiddie matinees and the downtown merchants who walked home for lunch every day. Mention of any one of these can trigger serious attacks of nostalgia in certain quarters.

So, just wait a week or two, and you can add Saturday mail delivery to your “good old days” list.

What has come to be known as “snail mail” is rapidly becoming what CBS’s Charles Osgood has called “a quaint custom.”

Certainly this decision on the part of the financially challenged U.S. Postal Service will be an inconvenience. But it also re-opens The Case of the Missing Letters, as Nancy Drew would put it.

Do we really, fully understand what is being lost as this “quaint custom” vanishes?

I hear you when you say, with a shrug, “Who cares? The mail is nothing but junk and bills anyway.” And that’s my point. It’s not the discontinuance of Saturday mail, but the disappearance of the letter.

Letters — real letters that you can hold in your hand, reread until they are tattered, moisten with your tears or crumple up and throw away — have always been our windows into the past.

You want a first-hand account of the impact of the Civil War? Read Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Letter to Mrs. Bixby,” who lost five sons on the battlefield. The original hangs on the wall of Brasenose College in England’s Oxford University as an example of the “purest English.”

You want to know what life was like in California’s Mother Lode during the Gold Rush? Read “The World Rushed In,” J.S. Holliday’s compilation of a New York man’s letters to his family. A whole book load of first-person history.

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