Southerners turn to everything from handwritten letters and personalized thank-you cards to calligraphy-adorned invitations to celebrate the importance of writing.
By Ashley Ryan
Whether it is a thoughtfully crafted handwritten letter or a wedding invitation with curling calligraphy inscribed across the front, the written word has solidified its place in American culture. With more than 230,000 routes throughout the nation, the United States Postal Service delivers each note in an effort “to reach every single person … in the country.” Such dedication stems, in part, from a storied history in which mail delivery was spotty at best.
Despite the fact that technological developments now allow for instant communication, the written word is as meaningful as ever— perhaps more so, as it requires additional time and effort compared with a text message or brief email. On top of that, written letters can serve a variety of purposes after the writer has passed away. They can become a window into someone’s innermost thoughts, dreams, goals and feelings, but they can also offer value as treasured mementos that provide both a legacy for the writer as well as a tangible memory for the recipient.
The dedication to putting pen to paper is especially apparent in the South. While handwritten correspondence may have declined since the pre-internet era, Gayden Metcalfe, a Southern etiquette expert based in Greenville, Mississippi, says she believes not as much has changed below the Mason-Dixon Line. “Southerners do tend to write more and correspond more,” she notes. “I think it’s just part of our … nature.”
Mailed letters are supplemented with a number of other written materials, from thank-you, condolence and save-the-date cards to picturesque postcards. While many of these pieces once used sealing wax to ensure that the recipient would know their post was unopened, colorful waxes are now used for decoration, whether it be to showcase a special seal or crest or to add some vibrancy to the mail.
On top of that, writing has become increasingly popular for other purposes as well, offering relaxation benefits and an outlet for creative release in the form of calligraphy.
No matter which way you choose to spread the written word, each letter scribed is leaving its own mark on history.
Writing Through Time
Written communication has had an essential place in American society for centuries, from allowing loved ones to keep in touch and spread news, to making political statements or sealing business deals. But, while it has always been incredibly important, it hasn’t always been easy.
“Letter writing was the primary means of communication in what we would think of as the pretechnology age,” says Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. “… [But] even writing letters was more trouble than most people think.” According to Deaton, back in the days before a postal system was established, transporting mail was quite the battle. With no mailboxes at the end of driveways or even street addresses in the way we think of them today, letters had to be taken to centralized outposts in larger towns and cities. Options for sending mail out of the region were even more complicated, with locals enlisting the help of friends, family or even strangers traveling by horseback and, later, the railroad, to deliver communication. Those hoping to send messages to Europe often turned to merchants or sea captains to get their letters across the Atlantic.
But there were other challenges along the way as well. “Letters constantly miscarried,” Deaton explains. “It was not uncommon for people to write two or three—sometimes four or five—copies of the same letter and to send them through various means hoping that one would get there.”
On top of that, he says, they were frequently opened along the way, with private details sometimes being published in newspapers up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Others simply took a long time to produce. “When you consider that most of them were written with pens that had to be dipped in ink, it was a pretty laborious process to write a long letter,” Deaton notes. “And yet some of these letters are masterpieces of English. They’re great fun to read.”
Still, in a time without email or text messages, any and all effort was justified, whether it was to check on the health of family members back home or to close a business deal overseas. Letters had other functions too, from acknowledging the receipt of other correspondence to moving public opinion to detailing the purchase of goods to bring back home.
With such a storied history, it’s no surprise that letter writing is alive and well today—and still very much part of the fabric of the South.
Over time, advancements in transportation and technology led to major improvements in the mail delivery process and, ultimately, the speed of correspondence. The past 30 years in particular have seen a monumental rise in digital tools, enabling instant communication and gratification.
“As America develops and as roads become better, as the railroad comes in, obviously communication becomes much more efficient and it becomes much quicker, which we take for granted now that we can communicate with anybody in the world in a second,” Deaton says. “I think that is the thing that would have most astonished them, would have most pleased them, because when someone traveled, the minute you got over the horizon, you were out of touch.”
According to Metcalfe, the key to correspondence—whether it be a long letter, a quick thank-you note or a condolence card—is making it personal and writing from the heart.
“It’s written just for you, and you know it when you read the note,” she says. “… You know when people are sincerely writing to you. You can feel that. … You don’t have to write a short story; you can just write a few sentences, as long as it’s sincere and it’s natural.” Other common pastimes in the South include clipping things out of the newspaper and sending them along in an envelope, or designing beautiful invitations for weddings and parties. “A pretty invitation sets the tone,” she explains.
Another way to send a quick note, especially while traveling to places like Sea Island, is with a postcard. “One thing that I most cherish are my grandmother’s postcards,” Metcalfe says. These small cards pack a big punch, offering a visual of a place as well as a thoughtful note that can reveal just what a loved one is (or was) up to.
A recent advertising campaign from Sea Island put the resort front and center in a series of handwritten postcards, stemming from the continued popularity of this type of correspondence. Titled “Notes from the Coast,” these ads emphasized the importance of jotting down memories while on vacation in hopes of inspiring members and guests to do the same.
All of these pieces of written communication can be enhanced, according to Metcalfe, by bespoke products like “beautiful paper, a good fountain pen and some personalized stamps to complete your stationery wardrobe.” In addition to stamps designed with initials or special illustrations, those interested in keeping in touch can purchase custom writing paper, embossed with a monogram or a family crest.
Writing has proved it can withstand the test of time, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been changes and trends along the way. One major movement has been that of calligraphy, which involves the use of special writing instruments to craft visually aesthetic letters by hand. While not a new skill by any means, calligraphy has definitely permeated the artistic world over the last decade, both in traditional and modern styles.
Now often used for wedding invitations and vows, save-the-date cards, envelopes, seating charts, chalk signs, poems, artwork and more, calligraphy has found a niche in the event world while also forming a presence in home décor.
“It’s a lost art,” says Dede Adams, owner of Atlanta-based Dede Adams Calligraphy. “If you want to set your event apart, if you want people to know your event is something special, it’s a way to show them that right off the bat.”
While traditional calligraphy, like copperplate, requires an exact hand, modern calligraphy is very loose. “Copperplate requires [that] everything start and end on the same line. Modern calligraphy dips below the line many times in a sentence,” explains Desiree Colonna, owner and CEO of Atlanta-based Inkwell Designers.
The tools vary with the techniques. Adams says that copperplate calligraphy, which includes elegant swirling letters, requires an oblique pen. “It’s about pressure and release,” she explains. “So you put pressure, do the downstroke and then release it when you do the upstroke. It has thicks and thins—those swirls can sort of fly—and that, for me, was really tough to learn.”
Other tools Adams often uses include a broad-edge pen for print-style calligraphy, as well as a broad-edge marker used for italics. Modern calligraphy, she says, can be done simply with a felt-tip pen.
Aside from the more traditional products produced by calligraphers, Colonna says she is able to use a drill to hand-engrave “virtually anything not made of plastic,” including wine or liquor bottles. “I enjoy seeing peoples’ face[s] when I hand them a bottle with their message engraved on it by my hand,” she notes. “That’s the best pay off.”
While the calligraphy industry is booming, the technique has therapeutic tendencies as well, serving as a tool for relaxation as well as to express creativity. In fact, that’s how Colonna first discovered the practice.
“I started as therapy after I lost my husband,” she explains. “One of my clients told me how he learned calligraphy engraving and the sky was the limit after that. … The concentration needed to get the strokes right and ensure everything is straight will help you forget about anything for a while. It’s an art form as much as watercolor painting or woodworking.”
To get started, she says that all you need is a pointed pen, lined paper and a jar of sumi ink. “Go online. There are a million calligraphy classes,” Colonna says. “Then, find a group and join it for more support and ideas on how to get started.”
Whether trying calligraphy for the first time or penning a letter to a loved one, writing seems to have a staying power that has already stood the test of time. Although technology can save time with a text or quick phone call, there is nothing comparable to opening the mailbox and finding a beautiful, thoughtful piece written by hand.