Boomers Wrote — and Received — Letters

You’ve heard it before: “Writing letters is a lost art.” Boomers understand that statement because In the heyday of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, letter writing was a common part of everyday life. Boomers wrote letters — usually by hand — to grandparents, aunt and uncles in other states; friends who moved away; as soldiers and to soldiers; from vacation postcards to Christmas year-end news; and more. This ubiquity is evidenced by music of the era, which referenced sending and receiving letters.

I’m Gonna To Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
Every now and then a song comes along that is so popular it is covered by numerous artists over multiple decades. In this case, the song was first popularized by Fats Waller in 1935. There were rock treatments and jazz treatments galore in the following decades, including during the boomer years, by Frank Sinatra (1954); Billy Williams (1957); Bing Crosby (1957); Bill Haley and his Comets (1957); Nat King Cole (1964) and a host of others.

Return to Sender — Elvis, 1962
Boomers fully understand the lyrics of this song, especially …

She wrote upon it:
Return to sender, address unknown
No such number, no such zone.

People who received a letter by mistake would often write on it, to tell the postman the reason — no such person at this address, return to sender, etc. It would be left in the mailbox for the postman to retrieve. The post office would then ink it with a “return to sender” stamp. Early-generation boomers also recall that postal zones were the forerunner to Zip Codes, which weren’t introduced until 1963, but weren’t widely adopted until 1967.

Mr. Lonely — Bobby Vinton, 1962
Bobby Vinton got the idea for this song about a homesick and lonely soldier while he was in the Army in the late 1950s.

Letters, never a letter
I get no letters in the mail

All My Loving — The Beatles, 1963
This song by Paul McCartney shows that lovesick boomers relied on the mail to stay in touch when they were away.

Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true
And then while I’m away
I’ll write home every day
And I’ll send all my lovin’ to you

Please Mr. Postman — The Marvelettes, 1961
An absolute necessity in any exploration of letter songs, this one illustrates the anticipation and frustration of waiting for a letter that does not arrive. It was Motown’s first number one hit, and the only number one hit for The Marvelettes.

Please Mr. Postman, look and see
Is there a letter in your bag for me?
‘Cause it’s been a mighty long time
Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine

The Letter — The Box Tops, 1967
A quintessential “letter” song, Alex Chilton sang:

Lonely days are gone, I’m a-going home
My baby, wrote me a letter

Boomers know what effect a hand-written letter could have, especially if it was welcome news.

How about you, boomers? Have your letter-writing days been replaced by social media, direct messaging and email?

Boomers are Helping to Seal the Fate of the Envelope

As if he needed another indication of the passage of time and how things are changing, Mister Boomer experienced “déja vu all over again” this past week when he discovered his box of 100 standard number 10 envelopes was depleted. The box had served him well for several years and, now empty, was destined for the recycling bin.

Standard envelopes were used for decades to send and pay bills, whisk personal letters to friends, family or business associates both near and far, and as the occasional repository for small items like rubber bands, nuts and screws, flower seeds or tax receipts. As such, a family could easily rip through a box of 100 envelopes two or more times a year.

Prior to 1950, residents in the U.S. received mail deliveries twice a day. In 1950 that was reduced to once a day, which is what we boomers recall. Sending letters, for whatever reason, wasn’t just the best way to communicate, it was the only way. Until electronic mail — e-mail — was popularized in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the need for envelopes continued to grow, along with the number of letters sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

In 1950 about 28 million first-class letters were sent by a population of nearly 106 million. By 1963, the U.S. Postal Service introduced Zip Codes to speed the delivery of mail. The end of the Boomer Generation in 1964 had seen the population balloon by another 70 million people, so it didn’t appear that letter sending — requiring the need for envelopes — would diminish any time soon. Nonetheless, the peak year for letter sending was four decades later in 2001, with nearly 104 million standard-sized envelopes sent from a population numbering 284 million people. Volume has been dropping ever since. If you are an envelope manufacturer, that’s got to be disconcerting.

As boomers, letters delivered in envelopes were so much a natural part of our experience that it permeated popular music. From Please Mr. Postman to Return to Sender; Sealed with a Kiss to The Letter, the envelope we were about to send or receive was of utmost importance. Mister B can personally attest to the anxiety of waiting for an “official greetings” envelope from his Uncle Sam, too.

As a child, Mister Boomer remembers the box of envelopes was stored in the hallway linen closet. In those early days of the 1950s, most of the family bills were paid in-person and not mailed. Mister B’s mom would, with kids in tow, walk to the ConEd office to pay the gas and electric bills. The same was true for the phone bill, since the telephone company store was on the same downtown block.

As near as Mister B can recall, that started to change in the mid-’60s. Although some banks continued to accept bill payments for utilities, Mister B’s father began mailing in payments. Most of the envelopes, though, were supplied by the companies, so the box in the closet didn’t have to be opened that often.

When Mister B was on his own after college, he was a fan of letter writing. The envelopes completed the process to send notes to friends and family, many of whom had moved to other places. As always, a box of envelopes stood at the ready, and when one was emptied, another would take its place.

Paying bills always entailed writing a check and sealing it in an envelope to the appropriate payee. Once online banking came along, some boomers became early adopters of the technology, while others — like Mister B — waited. That wait time has ended for Mister B and many others, contributing to the decline in the need for envelopes.

Mister B knows he has to replace the empty box, but wonders how long this next one will last? Five years? Ten? The rest of his life? It’s almost like boomers are saying to the Post Office, “It’s not you, it’s us… or rather, them.” Texting, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and online banking are all lined up, waiting to administer the coup de grace to our old friend, the envelope. The Post Office is just the delivery method that is collateral damage.

Remember the joy you felt as a kid when Aunt Thelma remembered your birthday? You’d tear open the envelope and, after politely reading the card, couldn’t wait to grab a hold of the $5 bill tucked inside. Now Mister B wants to know, once envelopes are as extinct as the eight-track tape player, how are you going to send your granddaughter $10 for her birthday in an e-card? With bitcoins?

When was the last time you bought a box of number 10 envelopes, boomers?