Arts, Culture & Media

Here's what we lost when we stopped writing letters

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Credit:

Shaun Usher/Letters of Note

In 2009, Shaun Usher was working as a copywriter when he received an assignment from a stationery company. He was tasked with somehow making stationery interesting — a daunting feat in an era of email and Twitter and Facebook posts.  

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So, what did he do? He went to the library and dug through collections of old letters.

Credit:

Shaun Usher/ Letters of Note

“I spent a few hours looking at these old, dusty books full of correspondence and was instantly hooked," he says. So he decided to start a blog. "I couldn’t believe that a blog didn’t actually exist.”

The first letter that he posted on that blog was a rejection letter from Disney to a young lady who wanted to be an animator. Disney replied to her on beautiful Snow White letterhead stationery, says Usher, though the message itself wasn’t so beautiful.

“It basically said women don’t get animation jobs, instead you should apply in the tracing department where men aren’t employed,” says Usher. “It was a document of its time.”

Usher has since posted hundreds of letters from the famous and not-so-famous. Now, he's publishing many of those letters in a book, Letters of Note, coming out in May.

The letters Usher has collected span the globe. And you find so much about history and culture between the lines of missives —whether it’s William Safire’s letter to the Nixon White House on what to do in the event of a moon disaster or author Mario Puzo’s letter to Marlon Brando begging him to play Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of The Godfather.

Usher, himself, is partial to the sad letters that he has collected. And quite a few of them are pretty sad. One letter featured in the book is between the Ciulla family from New Jersey and the Connell family from Lockerbie, Scotland.   

In 1998, a bomb exploded on a PanAm flight destined for New York while it flew over Lockerbie. Frank Ciulla was onboard that flight and his body landed on the Connell’s farm in Lockerbie. Years later, the Connells hosted the Ciulla family when they came to visit where Frank's body had been found in Scotland. The Connells then wrote a letter to the grieving Ciulla family to thank them for their visit.

“It really touches me because it’s such a difficult letter to write within such a tragic situation,” said Usher, “And I’ve been in touch with both families whilst producing this book and they’re both the loveliest families, brought together by such a hideous event. It really is a unique letter.”

Another tragic letter that Usher included is from sixteenth-century Korea. It’s a letter from a widow to her dead husband. “How could you pass away without me?” she writes to her husband. The letter was found in 1998, when archaeologists unearthed the tomb of Eung-Tae Lee, a thirty-something man who lived in the 1500s. The touching letter was found resting on his chest and caused a cultural stir in Korea. There are books, movies, plays, and even an opera based on the letter. 

“It’s a unique way of looking back at history," says Usher. "I find it a more interesting way than just reading a textbook."

You can read more of the missives Usher has found, like a letter from Elvis Presley to President Nixon or a teenage Fidel Castro's handwritten note to President Franlin D. Roosevelt, in his book, Letters of Note.

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    Shaun Usher/ Letters of Note

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    Shaun Usher/ Letters of Note

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    Shaun Usher/ Letters of Note