Of all of Man’s numerous discoveries and inventions, perhaps none has stood the test of time as well as the humble letter. From its beginnings as an underground movement in the hip section of the Lascaux caves to its zenith in 13th century Tokyo, letter-writing has shaped the world like no creation before or since. So how did this mighty tool – this cudgel of the aristocracy, this spearhead of the proletariat, this moist towelette of the modern middle classes – come to straddle the world itself?
Of course, every culture has a story of how letters came to be. The great philosopher Heraclitus wrote that the letter “was crafted by the mighty hammer of Hephaestus, of the finest oxtails and silver.” The Bible tells us that the letter was created between the 2nd and 3rd day to suggest to God that perhaps if the waters were gathered in one place, there would be a more suitable place for those fruit trees he seemed so fond of. A Confucian fable tells a tale of a poor peasant farmer who comes across a letter while tending to his fields. The letter brings the farmer many years of good luck until one day he is arrested trying to harvest the prince’s socks. There is even a tribe of the Amazon basin that believes the letter arose naturally, over thousands of years, along with the need to convey information accurately and durably over long distances!
But even if scientists are still baffled as to the origins of this “letter,” there is much to be gained from the study of its applications through history. Letter-writing remains to this day the most popular form of communication in the world, outpacing talking, hand signals, and even passive-agressive body language by some distance. Why, even an average housewife probably has some sort of letter on her kitchen counter or knitting desk right now! And yet, until recently, the history of this treasured jewel remained firmly in the corridors and pamphlets of academia. The average man knows less about the history of the letter than about the manufacture and use of blinking yellow traffic lights. To this day, not one volume suitable for the layperson’s consumption has been mass-produced.
Inspired by the discovery of a cache of letters in a Swiss deposit box marked “Vintage Erotica” amongst his late great-uncle Henry’s possessions, Dr. Matthew Findley W.J. Kantrowitz set out to write that very volume. Bravely putting aside his disappointment at the discovery, Kantrowitz contacted the foremost expert in the field, Adm. Dr. Shira Y. Danan. Together, they began research on a definitive work. After their publishing house turned out to be a front for a Peruvian alpaca-fighting ring, they decided to create a newsletter called the “History of the Letter,” but quickly discovered that nobody really uses the mail anymore. Instead, they’ve decided to present their work here, at the “History of the Letter” blog, in the hopes that ordinary men and women could learn about the history of the letter. And maybe, just maybe, they’d learn a little something about the history of themselves.
About the Authors
Dr. Kantrowitz is the Norman Norman Professor of Small Object Philosophy at Ruggleston University. He is best known for his academic works, A Metaphysical History of Nothingness, The Unseen World of Post-Abstract Determinism, and Crackerjacks! He is a founding member of the People’s Committee to Outlaw Smelts and is involved with numerous other charities, including the Moss Foundation for Dance Research and the American Society of Saucists.
Adm. Dr. Danan currently holds the Zelda Blatt Chairmanship of Golf at the University of Saint Christmas. Her thesis, “Saint Joan: The Use of the Postscript in 18th Century France,” is still considered the seminal work in the field of 18th Century French Letter Writing. It was later optioned and turned into the hit film Die Hard 2. Her unbeaten 144 against Malcolm Marshall and the West Indies is still considered a remarkable piece of batting on a very tricky wicket. She has also served as an adviser to the the President’s Council on Pancake Philosophy.
You can email the professors at historyoftheletter(at)gmail(dot)com