Gaye LeBaron: Losing the art of the letter




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.

Closer to home, we can read a letter from a young man from Kentucky named James W. Jewell, telling his father what it was like to be a squatter in the "Guilico Valey," in 1853. Someone in that Kentucky family had the wisdom to see that the California Historical Society got possession of those letters.

And when that kid brags to his father that he's had to take "medison to move my bowels" because "liveing on nothing but Flower and Coffee will cork a fellow up pretty tite. It would kill any man in the States."

When you read that, you know you've had a glimpse of life in early Sonoma Valley.

The current history exhibit on the Sonoma County Museum's mezzanine is a Smithsonian collection of mail, with some Sonoma County displays interspersed. The emphasis is on military mail, particularly the familiar V-Mail from World War II — and a couple of iconic coconuts with addresses on them, shipped from Pacific isles.

Earlier, during World War I, The Press Democrat printed letters from young Sonoma County men bearing the return addresses "Somewhere in France." They provided the first clue to the folks at home that their boys would return with wide eyes and a much wider view of the world.

"I know it's narrow-minded, " wrote Pvt. Joseph Dearborn, "but their customs are certainly queer — and I think it worth being shot at to see it all."

Pvt. Melvin Meeker discovered the French caf? "They have ... small gardens in front with tables. They do not drink quickly, but sip and talk. The town has places dating back to B.C. almost."

Marine James Williams "went out to dinner with a little French girl" and discovered a culinary delight known as "French-fried potatoes."

Many families could add to the Smithsonian's mail collection. I still have the box where my mother saved the letters my brother wrote from the Aleutians and Germany during World War II — along with the letter from my older sister in which she first mentioned the man she would marry — telling our mother to "Remember his name ... "

My parents and my husband's parents carefully saved the letters we wrote on our first trip to Europe in 1960, typed on our tiny Olivetti portable.

Reading them now is a true nostalgia trip, reminding us of places and people and great adventures we had almost forgotten.

Historians talk a lot about the importance of "primary sources." A newspaper columnist's mail can bring such treasures. A column about Spanish flu in the 1980s brought a wonderful letter from 81-year-old Frances Little, who was a "boarding student" at Ursuline College when she became ill. Her mother, who came by train from Duncans Mills to care for her avoided the flu, she said, "because Sister Mary Frances insisted she take a couple of straight shots."

That's a primary source, now residing in Special Collections at the Schulz Library at SSU, and digitized on-line.

The new, leaner, meaner USPS doesn't mean there will be no letters, of course, although we are tempted to add, "Not yet." I remember Jim Holliday's warning that "future historians are going to have a hard time of it."

Every day that becomes more obvious. A modern James Jewell would have emailed his father — or tweeted his brother. A column response today is more apt to be a brief comment at the end of the on-line version.

The last time we were in Europe, I called home on my cell phone. When I go again, I'll take my iPad. We have no letters from our son or our daughter to put away in neat bundles. None.