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Letters have crossed countries and continents for millennia. They were exchanged between people across the ancient world, from China to India, Egypt to Greece, written on anything from waxed wooden tablets and fragments of pottery to animal skins and papyrus.

Even if they never reached the speed of the words we send today, the importance of letter writing through history can’t be denied. While they may have served to deliver news and exchange sometimes mundane ideas, letters became valued historical sources, and there continues to be a fascination with letters written by, to and between historical figures, revealing something of the times but also of those who wrote them.

German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that ‘Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind.’ Compilations and compendiums of letters have been gathered into books with titles such as A Life in Letters — the correspondences of George Orwell and PG Wodehouse have both been collected as such — that reveal the relationships and lifestyles of these legendary figures.

There’s also an intimacy to the letter. Did those writing ever think their letters would be seen by anyone other than the recipient? They can reveal much about a person and the many facets of character according to whom they’re writing, particularly if the recipient is a lover. Fascinating exchanges have been collected between couples such as artist duo Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, who had a 30-year romance spanning more than 5,000 letters (sometimes sending multiple missives in a day). Emily Dickinson penned beautiful letters to a mystery man, while Ernest Hemingway wrote to a range of people from lovers to his mother.

Until relatively recently, before the dawn of the Internet and at a time when telephones were rare or calls expensive, it was the only real way to communicate with those you didn’t see regularly. It makes sense, then, that with the ubiquity of electronic communication, the letter saw something of a demise.

But it wasn’t merely necessity that drove letter writing. Letters are more than words. They take time to write; there’s an intimacy conveyed through their writing, and a weight in the time and thought it takes to write one. There are times where nothing but a letter will do, and it’s for this reason that they survive.

Letters mark a moment in time, like congratulations on an engagement or the birth of a child, when a sender wants to do more than email to show someone they care and that they understand the moment is significant. They can also show thanks for something, where a message or phone call doesn’t seem to do justice. Letters can also show you’re thinking of someone, more so than in the moment it takes to dash off an email. And in situations where condolence is required, letters go a long way. Such correspondence can be reread over the years and provide comfort.

Handwritten words also form part of Christmas cards. Instead of including a typed printout folded inside a card, handwritten sentiments feel personal, sharing news of the year past and hopes for the future. Even though such exchanges are shared just once a year, there’s nothing that can replace the Christmas card. They remain treasured, displayed as decoration around the house in the run-up to the festivities, and kept for years to come, looked back on to reveal the history of a family from year to year.

So, while letter writing may have dropped in popularity, it will always be appreciated as a moment of slowing down and reflecting for the writer, and something tangible that delivers love and thoughtfulness to the recipient. A letter conveys so much more than simply the ink on the page.