June 5, 2011

"Has the telephone killed the old-fashioned love letter?"

Apparently, yes.  The 1915 American trade magazine Telephone Facts hosted an article which counts the costs of telephony for courting couples.  The anonymous author acknowledges that a young lady may appreciate the conveniences of a domestic telephone connection, but this comes at a price, the price being a packet of letters from her beau, tied with a ribbon (perhaps with dried flowers), stashed at the back of her drawer.  

An ephemeral telephone call leaves no trace, moods are misinterpreted, details of the conversation may be forgotten.  A tangible letter, however, with visible signs left by its creator, can be re-read, touched, smelled.

A telephone call is easy for the boy: he can just ring up for a chat on an impulse, but sitting down to compose a letter requires time and effort.  And he'd much rather hear his beloved's voice over the "talking wire" than receive a dozen letters from her.  The same cannot be said for the girl.  She too would love to hear his voice but there are disadvantages: crossed lines, eavesdroppers, a hundred pairs of curious ears listening in on the party line.  (Admittedly, the writer's sexist bias is showing through; the same arguments are, of course, valid if the roles are reversed.)

The article was obviously penned by an agony aunt or an arbiter of public manners.  Those few etiquette manuals that devoted space to telephone use, relegated its use to informal circles.  Certainly where courtship is concerned, a visit or an outing could be chaperoned, but not so a telephone call.

I think there is a grain of truth in the writer's assertions.  A phone call from a loved one is always welcome, but a letter or card, however brief and simple, requires so much more effort on the writer's part.  Aside from the difficulty in choosing the right words, you have to find writing paper, pen, envelope, a stamp, and then go out and find a postbox (if it's the butler's day off).  It is this extra effort that makes the letter so valuable to the receiver, even though it is not consciously thought about.

It is for these reasons that I treasure all the letters I've received from friends and family and store them safe with my photographs.  I don't think we can say the same for messages of endearment sent by SMS.

Wordle: Telephones and Love Letters

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.