Written by Tom Flanagan | Published 14 February 2022 | Updated 10 February 2023
The art of putting down your feelings on paper dates back centuries. And while the 21st century has given more attention to email than the hand-written word, the onset of a global pandemic has seen a revival in the writing of personal notes. With the help of our pens and postcards experts, Arjan de Haan and Anton Stikkleman, we explored the history of love letters and why they’re experiencing a peculiar but welcome renaissance.
These days, it can be hard to feel connected. Which is surprising considering we’ve never been more wired up to one another. Social media and mobile’s democratisation of the internet has allowed us to reach people not just by message but by video. We have access to the most obscure pieces of information at a simple tap of a screen.
But for many of us, our relationships with one another have felt further away than ever, mirrored in our relationship to the written word. We tap instead of type; we voicenote instead of write. Our communication is more immediate but less gratifying. When it comes to matters of the heart, messaging online feels even more robotic. It’s why there’s been a rise in the more personal medium of letter writing; at least that’s the theory Catawiki Expert in Pens Arjan de Haan holds as to why people are resorting to love letters once more.
What makes a love letter
“A love letter is perhaps the most personal message someone can share," says Arjan. “It expresses the deepest thoughts, feelings and emotions to a love interest, a person they trust or simply someone they want to share these feelings with. Today, most communication is done through phone calls, email and text messages. Even though these methods are commonly used, they fall short in conveying feelings. Putting these down on paper is much more fitting."
The notion as to what a love letter can entail can be pretty broad. As Shaun Usher explains in his book Letters of Note: Love: “[the love letter] can be letters to lovers, letters to the dead, letters unsent - a form of correspondence with no modern equivalent and a flavour of which millions of people, including myself, owe so much”.
A short history of love letters
It’s believed the ancients were some of the first to send love letters, but not as we know them now. The first love letter ever to be written was in India according to book 10, chapter 52 of the Bhagavata Purana—one of Hinduism’s major Puranas which were literary texts devoted to the deity Krishna—when the Hindu goddess princess Rukmani sent one to Krishna. In it, she declared her love for him and begged him to save her from an arranged marriage conducted by her brother. It served its purpose as Krishna later married Rukmini, even though legend has it that Krishna was in love with another, Radha.
Early examples also erred on the side of practicality and formality rather than being yearning confessions of the heart. In ancient Egypt, the royal widow Ankhesenamun is said to have written to Egypt’s sworn enemy, the King of the Hittites, begging him to marry her off to one of his sons.
One theme that runs through the earliest love letters is tragedy. Fast forward to the early modern period and an illustrious playwright known as Shakespeare capitalised on this; who used love letters as a conduit for love tainted with tragedy. Take Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia which her father reads out to the royal court in scorn and acts as a precusor to her suicide, and serves as the catalyst for Hamlet’s madness.
"Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not
art to reckon my groans, but that I love thee best, O
most best, believe it. Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, Hamlet."
The double-edged sword of love letters throughout history is that while they serve as a reminder of love, they also act as proof when it can’t be realised. In the 20th century, this kind of love was never more apparent than during wartime, when male soldiers would send letters to their loved ones. Postage was free during both World Wars meaning every soldier, writer or not, could write home to their loved ones. Poignantly, a side of the card was often left blank so soldiers could reply, many of whom never did.
One notable example of the power of love letters in this age was the correspondence between Gilbert Bradley and Gordon Bowsher; two members of the British armed forces who sent over 600 letters to each other during the Second World War. At a time when homosexuality was illegal and punishable by imprisonment, the pair continued to write to one another at great risk to their safety. In one letter, Gordon writes: “To me, our love is so great that I feel it cannot exist without all the world being aware of it. I feel that all our happiness and all our unhappiness should be shared”. In serendipitous circumstances, these letters would later be shared with the world when they were discovered by the curator of the Oswestry Town Museum, and are now being turned into a book.
A modern-day revival
Today though, there’s less tragedy and more tenderness in the love letters people are turning to. Writing a love letter may sound a little indulgent and old-school, but they go beyond admissions of long-harboured feelings. Letters have seen a revival in part because of the physical separation people have had to endure due to the global pandemic. In Ireland for instance, the postal service commissioned five million postcards to be delivered to people's homes, which could then be posted to somebody free of charge, in a thoughtful attempt at inspiring people to write to those they couldn’t be near. It was such a success they sent another five million out.
The allure of writing letters is also down to people’s increasing aversion to the performativity of social media. These loving notes are a place of solace, somewhere for anyone to find company in, explains postcards expert Anton Stikkleman. “Nowadays, there are too many mediums to communicate. Postcards and letters were the perfect way to send your lover a message. And people are discovering once again that writing is much more personal”.
At the heart of writing love letters are two driving forces: the act of loving and the act of longing. Knowing that someone has taken the time to dedicate their words to you is a little proof that even when the noise of the world is deafening, in letters, there is always a quiet reminder that you’re never really alone. And just like Bradley and Bowsher’s letters, whose tender messages have been published for the world to see, they’re proof that finding true love exists outside of time and space—sometimes all you need is a pen and paper.
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