Letter (message)

A letter is a written message conveyed from one person (or group of people) to another through a medium.[clarification needed][1] The term usually excludes written material intended to be read in its original form by large numbers of people, such as newspapers and placards; however even these may include material in the form of an "open letter". Letters can be formal or informal. Besides being a means of communication and a store of information, letter writing has played a role in the reproduction of writing as an art throughout history.[1] Letters have been sent since antiquity and are mentioned in the Iliad.[2] Historians Herodotus and Thucydides mention and use letters in their writings.[3]

News from My Lad by James Campbell, 1858-1859 (Walker Art Gallery)

History of letter writing

Letter of Darius the Great to Gadatas, circa 500 BC.
The famous Einstein letter from Edward Teller and Leó Szilárd to US President Franklin Roosevelt suggesting an atomic bomb project. Click here for page 2.
A thank-you letter from Katharine Hepburn to Alan Light thanking him for his condolences in regards of Cary Grant's death

Historically, letters have existed from, ancient India, ancient Egypt and Sumer, through Rome, Greece and China, up to the present day. During the 17th and 18th centuries, letters were used to self-educate.[clarification needed] The main purposes of letters were to send information, news and greetings. For some, letters were a way to practice critical reading, self-expressive writing, polemical writing and also exchange ideas with like-minded others. For some people, letters were seen as a written performance.[clarification needed] Letters make up several of the books of the Bible. Archives of correspondence, whether for personal, diplomatic, or business reasons, serve as primary sources for historians. At certain times, the writing of letters was thought to be an art form and a genre of literature, for instance in Byzantine epistolography.[4]

In the ancient world letters might be written on various different materials, including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. From Ovid, we learn that Acontius used an apple for his letter to Cydippe.[5] More recently, letters have mainly been written on paper: handwritten and more recently typed.

As communication technology has developed in recent history, posted letters on paper have become less important as a routine form of communication. For example, the development of the telegraph drastically shortened the time taken to send a communication, by sending it between distant points as an electrical signal. At the telegraph office closest to the destination, the signal was converted back into writing on paper and delivered to the recipient. The next step was the telex which avoided the need for local delivery. Then followed the fax (facsimile) machine: a letter could be transferred from the sender to the receiver through the telephone network as an image. These technologies did not displace physical letters as the primary route for communication; however today, the internet, by means of email, plays the main role in written communications, together with text messages; however, these email communications are not generally referred to as letters but rather as e-mail (or email) messages, messages or simply emails or e-mails, with the term "letter" generally being reserved for communications on paper.

As literary historical source material

Due to the timelessness and universality of letter writing, there is a wealth of letters and instructional materials (for example, manuals, as in the medieval ars dictaminis) on letter writing throughout history. The study of letter writing usually involves both the study of rhetoric and grammar.[6]

Comparison with electronic mail

François BoucherThe Secret Message, 1767 (Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum)

Despite email, letters are still popular, particularly in business and for official communications. At the same time, many "letters" are sent in electronic form. The following advantages of paper letters over e-mails and text messages are put forward:

  • No special device is needed to receive a letter, just a postal address, and the letter can be read immediately on receipt.
  • An e-mail may sit in a recipient's inbox for some time before being read, or may not be read at all; a paper letter is more likely to receive prompt attention once it arrives.
  • An advertising mailing can reach every address in a particular area.
  • A letter provides an immediate, and in principle permanent, physical record of communication, without the need for printing. Letters, especially those with a signature and/or on an organization's own notepaper, are more difficult to falsify than is an email, and thus provide much better evidence of the contents of the communication.
  • A letter in the sender's own handwriting is more personal than an e-mail and shows that the sender has taken trouble to write it.
  • If required, small physical objects can be enclosed in the envelope with the letter.
  • Letters are unable to transmit malware or other harmful files that can be transmitted by e-mail.
  • E-mails are insecure and may be intercepted en-route. For this reason, letters are often preferred for confidential correspondence.
  • Letter writing leads to the mastery of the technique of good writing.
  • Letter writing can provide an extension of the face-to-face therapeutic encounter.[clarification needed][7]

The following advantages are put forward for e-mails and text messages over traditional letters:

  • Potentially they can be transmitted instantly.
  • They can be sent to a number of recipients in one operation (this is also a disadvantage as it leads to needless time-consuming correspondence).
  • They do not require postage to be paid (although there is often a small fee for sending a text message).
  • They do not require materials such as paper and ink.
  • Often an e-mail would require a less formal style than a letter to the same recipient, and thus may take less time to write. It is also easier to make amendments to a draft than it is with a handwritten letter.
  • E-mails may be composed using spell checkers and other devices, and thus may conceal the ignorance (inability to spell or compose prose etc.) of the sender; this may be an advantage or a disadvantage.
  • During an epidemic, e-mails cannot transmit diseases.
  • They don't take up physical space and can't be damaged in a natural disaster.

Delivery process

Here is how a letter gets from the sender to the recipient:

  1. Sender composes and writes letter and may fold the letter so that it fits in an envelope. For bulk mailings, a folding machine may be employed.
  2. Sender places the letter in an envelope on which the recipient's address is written on the front of the envelope, or often is visible through a transparent window of the envelope. Sender ensures that the recipient's address includes the Zip or Postal Code (if applicable) and historically often included his/her return address on the envelope.
  3. For small volume private letters, the sender buys a postage stamp and attaches it to the top right corner on the front of the envelope. (For most commercial letters, postage stamps are not used: a franking machine or other methods are used to pay for postage.)
  4. Sender puts the letter in a postbox.
  5. The national postal service of the sender's country (e.g. Royal Mail, UK; USPS, United States; Australia Post in Australia; or Canada Post in Canada) empties the postbox and transports all the contents to the local sorting office.
  6. The sorting office then sorts each letter by address and postcode and sends the letters destined for a particular area to that area's local sorting office (sometimes called a delivery office). Letters addressed to a different region may go through more than one stage of transmission and sorting.
  7. The local delivery personnel collect the letters from the delivery office and deliver them to the proper addresses. In some areas, recipients may need to collect the letters from the local office.

This process, depending on how far the sender is from the recipient, can take anywhere from a day to 3–4 weeks. International mail is sent via trains and airplanes to other countries.

In 2008, Janet Barrett in the UK received an RSVP to a party invitation addressed to 'Percy Bateman', from 'Buffy', allegedly originally posted on 29 November 1919. It had taken 89 years to be delivered by the Royal Mail.[8] However, Royal Mail denied this, saying that it would be impossible for a letter to have remained in their system for so long, as checks are carried out regularly. Instead, the letter dated 1919 may have "been a collector's item which was being sent in another envelope and somehow came free of the outer packaging".[9]

Kinds of letters

There are a number of different types of letter:


Means of transport


  1. Blake, Gary; Bly, Robert W. (1993). The Elements of Technical Writing. Macmillan Publishers. p. 125. ISBN 0020130856.
  2. Homer, Iliad, 6. 167–70.
  3. Ebbeler, J. (2009). "Tradition, Innovation, and Epistolary Mores". In Rousseau, P. (ed.). A Companion to Late Antiquity. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 270. ISBN 978-1-4051-1980-1.
  4. "Epistolography" in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1991, p. 718. ISBN 0195046528
  5. Ovid, Her. 20
  6. Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell, eds., Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present (Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press, 2007).
  7. Glenday, Craig (2013). Guinness Book of World Records 2014. pp. 127. ISBN 978-1-908843-15-9.
  8. "Royal Mail delivers letter 89 years late". The Daily Telegraph. 8 December 2008. Archived from the original on 13 April 2017. Retrieved 13 April 2017.