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UPON THE THREATENED EXTINCTION OF
THE ART OF LETTER WRITING (1910)

by GEORGE FITCH

reprinted from American Magazine, Volume 70, June, 1910, 172-5.

Like a heaven-sent relief, the souvenir postal card has come to the man of few ideas and a torpid vocabulary. No invention in recent years has been so gratefully received. To the thousands of weary travelers ransacking their poorly stocked garrets for words with which to transmit the wonders they are seeing to the folks at home, the first souvenir card came like the first bit of green to the mariners in the ark. It represented one general gasp of relief—"See it for yourself; I can't describe it"—and there was no question of its success.

To write of souvenir cards is to write of the human race and enumerate its foot tracks. The sands of the sea are hardly a quorum beside them. They are sold in every hamlet in Europe and America, in Siberia, Alaska, Mombasa, Tierra del Fuego, Beluchistan, the tomb of Shakespeare, the Queen's Chamber in the Great Pyramid. From steamers they carry the bill of fare back to the home folks. From balloons they bear messages to newspapers. From jails they carry appeals for bail to faithful friends. The traveler marks his trail as if with confetti by hastily scribbled notes consisting of "Wish you were here, All well." "Stood in front of this statue to-day. All well," thus paying up old debts, keeping his family informed and, at the same time, impressing a little of the glory of traveling upon the stay-at-homes.

As time has gone on, the cards have increased in variety and beauty until buying souvenir cards abroad has become more fascinating than buying gloves in Paris. The ordinary one-night-stand European trip consists nowadays of two experiences, repeated indefinitely—seeing the cathedral and buying souvenir cards of the town. Card sellers poke their wares at you through the car windows. They swarm about you as you walk the streets. The conductor of the excursion hack announces solemnly, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Louvre. Fifteen minutes for which to buy souvenir cards." Sight-seeing has been made wonderfully easy because no longer do you have to tramp through innumerable shrines of history and art. You can buy the interiors and all their contents outside the door. Often by so doing you will come away much more awe-struck than if you had made the personal investigation. This is particularly so in Paris. The best and most delightful way of seeing Paris, so far as confirming past dreams is concerned, is to buy souvenir cards of it in Switzerland.

The souvenir card is of foreign birth but, like everything else, it has emigrated. The domestic card is now as great a feature as the foreign production. When mother decides that she will stay all night with her daughter in the next town, she sends word home to the family on a souvenir card of the Carnegie Library. When father's dry-goods store burns down, he photographs the catastrophe, prints a souvenir card from it and requests the insurance adjuster to drop into town immediately. When Tilly, the chauffeur of the family cook stove, packs up and leaves at night she breaks the news to the family next day on a souvenir card. Baby's arrival, his first tooth, his first trousers, his first bicycle, his first girl and his first baby, all go to the family circle by souvenir postal, for anyone with a camera can make his own cards these days. In fact, the home-grown card has become so useful that no family can keep house without it. Thanks to it, we know more than we once did about our relatives and friends, as well as about Burn's house and the catacombs of Rome.

If the souvenir card had stopped at being a purveyor of canned descriptive it would be almost an unmixed blessing. but enterprise knows no dead line, and enterprise, in the guise of a souvenir card, had become a menace to the letter-writing ability of an entire nation. It was bad enough when mankind, instead of filling a letter with good English, wrote a few hasty words on a postal card. But of late the accommodating card has been supplying those few words. We have now not only the picture card, but the conversational card. The man who is not well supplied with wit can purchase it at the rate of two epigrams for five cents. He can buy personal remarks of an embarrassing or irritating nature and mail them to his friends. Or, if he has received such a remark from another friend, he can generally find, by a little searching, a withering retort which comes plain for one cent or in three colors for five cents—not an excessive tariff for repartee. He can even buy postals arranged in the Australian ballot system by which he can write a whole letter to a friend simply by putting crosses in the proper squares in the following sentences:

[ ] "This is a slow town."
[ ] "This is a gay town."
[ ] "The cemetery is the liveliest joint in this burg."
[ ] "I am well."
[ ] "I am a dead one."
[ ] "I am all well but my appetite."
[ ] "Business is good."
[ ] "Business is rotten."
[ ] "They buy suspenders on installments in this town."
—and so forth—sixty quotations on a card. Could human ingenuity go farther in saving wear and tear on the brain?

Herein, however, lies its danger. The American nation has never been overly gifted in letter writing. Of later years it has become entirely too busy to write letters. There are already men who do not write a personal letter once in a year and who, if deprived of their stenographers and supplied with writing materials, would be overwhelmed with despair and ink at the end of an hour. There are already women who confine their correspondence to appropriate cards on Christmas and St. Valentine's. The present generation of children rush to the souvenir card stores as soon as they have learned their childish letters and find that, with a little practice, they can be as witty as their elders in picking out appropriate sentiments and replies.

In another generation the hand-made letter will be as extinct as hand-made music. It will be used only at one age—the time when life to the young man or the young woman consists merely of a series of long and uninteresting hiatuses between the daily mail deliveries.

But now arises a new danger which threatens even this last citadel of letter writing. The souvenir postal card courtship, if not an accomplished fact, is only a step in the future. Already a conversation a year long can be maintained at a cost of one cent per day in postage and from three to five cents in cards. No manufacturer has yet discerned any market for cards containing proposals in all forms and manners nor of answers in all degrees of enthusiasm. But the wise manufacturer will prepare, for, having furnished the material to lead a couple up to the crisis by word of card, he must not desert them in their hour of need.

It takes very little strain on the imagination to follow the course of a souvenir card courtship clear to the floral bell in the parlor of the bride's home. Let John represent the youth of the coming generation, well educated in postal card repartee, but who has never written and mailed five consecutive words. Let Mary represent a handsome young woman who has toured Europe and has, by means of picking out postal cards carrying the proper sentiments, kept her family and friends well informed concerning her health, enthusiasms and impressions. Let John and Mary, living in neighboring towns, be introduced at the home of a friend. Let each return home deeply impressed and eager to continue the acquaintance.

There are 100 cruel miles between the two and neither has ever written a letter. However, not knowing what they are missing, they do not repine. John sends Mary souvenir cards of the train on which he returned, the main street of the town, the river bank, the post office, the office in which he works and an ornamental affair which reads: "This would be a good town if it had you," and Mary, after a little hunting, discovers the following modest answer:

"Aren't you stringing yourself along?"

Upon which John would not rest until he had discovered the following:

"Sure, I'm all wrapped up in you."

To which he would get this coy little jolt:

"Why don't you take something for what ails you?"

This, of course, would take a little hunting to answer, but John would presently discover a set of topical song hits on postal cards and presently Mary would get the following:

"There ain't nothin' ails me but what you can cure."

Which, of course, would be perfectly easy with a well-stocked store to draw from. This is about what John would get:

"What you need is a little pinch of salt."

Thus the correspondence would flutter merrily along, and, while occasionally one of the two would be cornered by an unanswerable retort and would be forced into the humiliation of answering with such a trite thing as:

"Here's to brown eyes, bless 'em," or "Doesn't this old town look good to you any more?" As a rule the answers would be pat and prompt, even if it did take desperate searches to land some of them. In time the cards would become gentler and a bit more serious—John boldly sending the most eloquent declarations he could find and Mary confronted with the very delicate job of answering them pleasantly without putting herself on record in red, white and blue ink. For instance, when Mary got a card like this:

"You're all the world to me, kid," it would require a lot of diplomacy to side-step this sort of thing and yet encourage more. But a good card store would enable her to reply:

"I wonder if you mean all you say."

And John wouldn't have much trouble in finding the following:

"If I only could say all I mean."

About this time, the correspondence would go under cover. Cards above a certain temperature are less embarrassing when mailed in envelopes, anyway. It is easy to see the result. Another three months would find John driving card sellers into profanity by his persistent hunting for a particular card. Imagine a pale and anxious lover dependent entirely upon the ingenuity of some sordid card artist who probably has never been in love himself, spending days in a frantic attempt to jam his surging soul into a ten-word sentiment written by someone else. Still, it could be accomplished, and presently Mary would receive the following:

"If I had a little home, would you share it?" or "Wouldn't you help me spend my salary through life?" or "I love you, dearie, and what's the answer?"

There is a suspicion that a woman can foretell a proposal long enough in advance to be pretty well prepared, and very probably Mary has stored away some such card as this:

"It's been all you since first we met," or some other form of the same old answer.

And so the postal card romance would be completed. Note its economy both in stamps and brain cells. Even these virtues do not mark the limit of development in the souvenir card. What will tomorrow bring in postal cards to compete against the letter which hasn't improved in the last fifty centuries except that where once it was baked on an Assyrian paving brick it is now written on heavy blue paper, nine tall words to a page and each page continuing to parts unknown?

This is the menace of the postal card. Will a syndicate, backed by some greedy trust, dictate the sentiments of the human race a decade hence, and will the course of true love the world over be dictated by half a dozen ready writers of paragraphic eloquence penned up in the loft of some New York office building?

 

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