Artists and Salespeople

My dad gave me his favorite magazine from his childhood–an issue of The Leather Craftsman dated September/October 1959.  He always loved the image on the cover and the accompanying story that someone had written from the perspective of the cougar.

I love that the image is all tooled in leather! Look at that detail!

As I was reading through the magazine, I saw this little bit of wisdom:

I have been thinking about ways to move from artist to salesman, of designing my own stationery and selling it online and at craftshows.  But as the “feet” concept suggests–it’s a lot of work to do when you already have a full-time, non-stationery related job!

Since my trip to the National Stationery Show in May, I’ve been thinking about the trend in the industry away from letter sets and toward cards only.  I walked up and down aisle after aisle, looking in hundreds and hundreds of booths.  I saw thousands of cards and fewer than five letter sets.  I’ve heard from pen pals that they don’t find letter sets in stationery stores any more. They have to go online and find folks who still believe that we have something to say that won’t fit in a small card.

There are some companies that still do fun letter set designs (I like Peter Pauper Press, Crane and Chronicle). And there are a lot of great Asian letter sets out there. But it feels like there may be room for me, too.  I may jump into the fray.  If it get up the courage, you’ll be the first to know!

1910 Postcards Predict the Future

My Dad sent me a great link to 1910 postcards featuring illustrations by French artist Villemard.  They depict how he imagined Paris in the year 2000. Some of his predictions were spot on (audiobooks, Skype, and email) but others are laughable now. Best of all, I love how they all  involve demure clothing. No futuristic silver space suits here.

These lovely images were found by someone at the University of North Carolina.  I wonder if they were in an archive or some old family member’s collection.  What a find!

You can see all of the images in this Flickr stream. Wouldn’t it be great to have these images on postcards now?

1940’s “Air Mail” Italian Pillowcase

Last weekend I had a great visit to my Mom and Dad. While rummaging around in a trunk, I came across this souvenir my grandfather brought back from Italy in the 1940s.  He was deployed there just after WWII as part of the occupation troops.

The souvenir (I know it’s a souvenir, because it says so on the actual souvenir!) is a satiny, blue pillowcase sporting a lovely coral-colored fringe.  The pillowcase features bold stitched symbols of a bird carrying a letter to an open window.

Here is a detail of the letter-carrying bird:

My mother was very kind and let me bring this gem home.  It’s so nice to have a little piece of my family’s history that also sports a postal theme!

They Knew Letter Enthusiasts Would Arise from the Ashes

I read this blog entry by Joel Achenbach on the Washington Post the other day about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram.  Wondering what the future held for such new-fangled inventions like Instagram, Achenbach looked back at his 1993 article about the rise of email. He appended, in full, the almost 20-year-old piece. It reminded me how we used to use email (to send letters to one another rather than to exchange quick bits of info).  It also included his prognostications about the rise of us snail mail devotees enamored with vintage writing implements and the slower pace that letter writing affords. Here’s how he ends his 1993 article:

He says there has been a 15 percent increase in traffic on the Internet every month — the greatest leap in letter-writing since the end of the 1700s, the age of Samuel Johnson, who would think nothing of writing a letter to his neighbor across the street.

Says Saffo, “The people who are on the cutting edge of the electronic frontier are the most avid letter-writers on the planet today. It’s just they don’t use paper. They use screens and electrons.”

Someday, perhaps, the computer revolution that has given us so much velocity in our communication will cause a backlash. A new subculture will emerge that will use inkwells and quill pens. It will champion slow communication, the burdensome writing tools that encourage contemplation and reflection. It will say that handwritten letters have dignity. It will argue that thoughts need time to steep, like a cup of tea.

This will surely happen first in California.

Smart man.  I think I’ll go write a letter while my tea steeps.

Letter Writing Social at the National Postal Museum

If any of you plan to be in Washington, D.C. this weekend, be sure to stop by the National Postal Museum.  Melissa over at Craftgasm is working with Erin at the NPM to host a letter writing social from 12:00-3:00 this Saturday, April 28th.

While you are there, you can write letters, check out our nation’s postal history, buy some stamps and connect with other postal enthusiasts (or philepistlists as Melissa has coined us).

Who knows, maybe I’ll hop in my car and head north.  It certainly is tempting!


The Lure of Nostalgia and Physicality

An article by Alex Williams in the New York Times discussed the surge in sales and interest in wrist watches after a decade of significant decline.  Folks in their 20s and 30s who abandoned watches when they adopted cellphones (or who never adopted watches at all) are returning to them as part of a fashion trend.  What’s hot right now: big watches, vintage Rolexes, and clear watches that let you see the gears moving.

The section of the article that made me think of the connection to snail mail was:

For a generation raised on Game Boys, however, the appeal seems to go a little deeper than just a desire for another fashion accessory. In a world surrounded by ever-glowing LCD screens, there’s an analog chic to wearing a mechanical instrument.

“A cool machine that is all moving parts has got to be intrinsically interesting to someone born into this generation, because there’s just nothing like that in their life,” said Mitch Greenblatt…

Just as sitting down with the tactile accoutrements of letter writing–a nice pen and luxurious paper–provides me with a much needed respite from the computer I sit in front of all day, the watch can provide a nostalgic “connected” feeling for its wearer.

As we live in an increasingly digital world, I think more people will continue, or begin,  to yearn for and connect with the tangible, high-quality artifacts from days past or the rewarding, comforting activities of our grandparents’ generation. Knitting, letter press, canning food, gardening, and using refurbished typewriters have all experienced a return to vogue status in recent years.

What’s funny to me is that people don’t “go back to” five and a quarter inch floppy disks or fire up that old 1984 IBM personal computer in the same ways as people have been reviving the more tactile arts of woodworking or blacksmithing.  Is it because computers are not built to last? They quickly become obsolete and seem to have no intrinsic value.  When electronics break, most of us don’t have the ability to tinker around with them to fix them and it’s cheaper to buy anew than to repair most of the time. But the tools used in woodworking may themselves be a hundred years old and remain perfectly serviceable.

In a recent interview in Poets & Writers, author William Giraldi says that he does not believe that the internet will murder the book because “the automobile has yet to murder the bicycle.  The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect invention, and perfection dies hard.”

Indeed.  Books created 400 years ago still “work” and are available to modern users to share information and illumination as they always have.  A computer 10 years old is often an unusable relic that everyday folks can not easily revive, and the reward for reviving it would be unappealing (who needs to revive a computer with less storage than the average Word document takes?).

Maybe watches are perfect inventions as well, but I posit that letters are a perfect invention.  All who are literate can share a piece of themselves to connect with another in a form that can last for generations.  We have letters dating back hundreds (thousands!) of years.  We can return to them for information and illumination.

What will an old ipod do for us in 15 years?

In a July 7, 2011 New York Times article on the increasing popularity of apothecary-made personal care items, the author interviewed the makers and users of these old-school items:

Cheryl Richardson, 51, the author of five self-help books, was delighted when she first visited the Farmaesthetics headquarters in an old renovated trolley barn in Newport, R.I., and saw where some of her powder exfoliants and remedy oils are made.

“There were bottles of herbs, mortar and pestles,” Ms. Richardson said, marveling. “There were plants. I was so blown away, who does this? This is a whole new thing.” Or a new old thing.

Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft confirmed for me that feeling of alienation at the loss of “doing things” which I often feel when I spend too much time in my head in front of a computer.  He helped me understand more deeply why I yearn to do things with my hands. The activities of letter press and woodworking and canning of food require technical expertise, but the gaining of that expertise brings with it physical results–a card, a carving, a jar of tomatoes!

I do these activities to renew my connection to the world.  As mail artist Carolee Gilligan Wheeler shares in her zine Practice Being Human (available in pdf download here) her daily routines of endlessly scrolling through websites left her feeling blank and uninspired.  A self-imposed, month-long hiatus from the internet revitalized her; she re-discovered the joys of the physical world around her.

So what is my point? It’s that I think many of us are feeling an urge to connect with things that are, in a way, more human.  Natural forces, like pressure pushing inked type into cotton paper or steam sanitizing glass jars to fill with garden-grown tomatoes, feel, well, natural to us.  As we forge ahead into a world where most of us can’t tinker with and repair everyday objects , I think there will always be a good portion of us who feel a pull toward the physical, the comforts of producing something of value, and a sense of confidence at our self reliance.

I encourage you to reconnect with something you used to do (sew? garden? paint?) or try out a new skill.  There is comfort and renewal in the making…a perfect antidote to the February Funks or the Digital Age Doldrums.

Video of How the Mail Moves

I seriously need to revisit the National Postal Museum, I haven’t been in a long time (maybe 20 years?), and they have some great new exhibits.  There is a video there now called All Systems At Work that shows you how mail moves from your mailbox to someone else’s mailbox.  The USPS moves hundreds of millions of mail pieces a day and I am fascinated that this insanely high-tech process can happen so quickly!.  Check out the video here, or on the 270-degree theater screen at the National Postal Museum.  The video is part of a larger exhibit that shows how mail has moved throughout the history of the postal service.  You can learn more about the exhibit here.

Virginia Woolf’s Letters

Aside from her opening lament for the “loss of the written word” (really? where did it go?), I enjoyed Lisa Jardine’s Point of View in BBC News Magazine recently. Jardine shared heated letter exchanges author Virginia Woolf had with a book critic.  Jardine used these exchanges to show that letter writing can provide an opportunity for us to reflect and breathe after getting unwelcome news so that we may reply in a reasoned, respectful manner. She offers that the medium of letters and the traditional conventions of letter writing prevented rude, dis-embodied comments like we see so frequently these days on the internet.

(photo from Encyclopedia Britannica)

But then Jardine shared excerpts from another series of letters exchanged between Woolf and her former lover Vita Sackville-West, letters that resulted in hurt feelings over what was an apparent misunderstanding.  A postal “flame war” erupted before cooler heads prevailed.

The takeaway? Let’s not romanticize letter writing as a higher form of communication so sophisticated that it prevents us mere humans from getting in our own way.  As it turns out, we’re likely to do that no matter the form our communication takes.

But I still think that letters–with their tangible, mutually touched pages–are a far superior format for communication that matters…like apologizing for sending a nasty letter!  Today, their rarity makes them all the more powerful.

An American in Paris

Since my trip to Paris last year, I’ve had a mini-fantasy of picking up and moving to Paris to write and create and drink and taste and ponder and do all those things that Americans fantasize about doing in Paris.  It’s a city where people have been doing just that for centuries, so it’s the perfect place to fantasize about.

To feed my fantasy, I’ve been reading books like The Paris Wife about Hemingway and his first wife and their time in Paris.  I also really enjoyed the movie Midnight in Paris that brought to life the 1920s art scene (and, ironically, features a main character who recognizes his folly in romanticizing Paris and its past).  I have since moved to reading works by authors writing at that time, like Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

I am reading Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Tender Buttons.  Often, her style is so random that I just let go and read and see where it takes me, what it makes me feel.  But having read some of her work, I really enjoyed the creatvity of this rejection letter sent by her publisher (posted at Letters of Note).

It’s nice to remember that even now-famous writers got rejection letters. It reminds me that what Sir Ken Robinson says is true, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”  I hope we all are prepared to try and fail and be wrong and continue anyway; only then can we create something worth creating.


Robert Burns Letter

I love Scottish poet Robert Burns, and not just because we share a birthday! His poetry is so delicious and raucous and romantic.

And, apparently, he didn’t take criticism well.  Or perhaps he just didn’t take criticism well if he felt it was unfounded.  Here is a wonderful letter he wrote to a critic in 1791.  It was posted yesterday on Letters of Note.

(Image from BBC, which has a lovely Burns page.  I’m so sad that my computer is not “in the area” that is allowed to hear the recitations of his poetry by famous Britains.)

My favorite part of his letter (beyond the simply perfect beginning of “Thou eunuch of language”) was “thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense.”

Oh, will I ever write such a musical scree of poetic invective? Maybe if I’m angry enough!