Tag Archives: letter writing

Guest post: Why “Traditional” is often better than “Digital”

After working at The Guardian Newspaper for 5 years Nick Huxsted is now a freelance digital marketing specialist working with a number of large and small organisations across the UK. He has featured on a number of blogs including The Guardian, Hip & Healthy and is a regular contributor of Weekend Notes. When not glued to his laptop Nick likes to relax by staying glued to his iPad.

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Cramp is usually associated with prolonged periods of exercise. Typically reserved for the legs and arms after a vigorous game of tennis or competing in an often under prepared fun run. It certainly wasn’t expected half way down a sheet of A4 when composing a letter to my grandmother. My hands, that while at school were accustomed to such seemingly simple tasks; had become weak, withered, useless writing implements unable to cope with the herculean effort of writing a short letter. The digital world with its endless button pushing and mouse clicking, had robbed my hands of its calligraphic strength. Instead of the fluid, elegant letter I had imagined the end results was an almost illegible scrawl that only the most gifted or graphologists would be able to decipher. Although extremely touched that I’d gone to the effort of sending her a letter, my grandmother had to call to ask what the content of my letter contained. So in an attempt to toughen up my hands I’ve recently been writing more letters, and the response I’ve received from the numerous recipients has been very surprising indeed. In an age where text speak, emails and social media has become all too common, hand-written letters it would appear not only stand out from the crowd, but have a much more emotional reaction from the recipient. In an attempt to bring back traditional forms of communication, here are some of the reasons why people tend to love receiving a hand written, illegible letter. Showing you care It takes almost no effort to send an email. We perform the daily ritual without ever giving it a moment’s notice, bashing out our message and relying on auto-correct and the delete button to compose a suitable message. Taking the time to consider, plan and compose a personal letter means you actually start to think about what you want to say. It will always be more descriptive, honest and thoughtful. Much more compelling than a text message with a smiley face attached to the end of it. The effort will surely not be lost on the lucky recipient. Memories When we move house, spring clean our wardrobe or clean under the bed, we often come across the boxes that contain many of our memories. The diaries, school essays and letters from loved ones frequently evoke a sense of nostalgia that are tactile, physical reminders of our past. The musty smell and slight brown tinge all promote a sense of nostalgia that is difficult to replicate by searching our old email archives. A message sandwiched between a reminder about PPI Insurance and Gym membership doesn’t really have the same sentimental value. Traditional letters provide a much more emotive glimpse into our past and history. Stand out from the crowd It’s common practice nowadays to send a “thank you” email after a meeting, a job application or attending a social event like a wedding. The sheer volume of messages we receive on a daily basis can either be physically lost in Mr Spam, or become the same standard blurb that we’ve all read a thousand times before. It’s much more likely that you’ll make an impression and stand out from the crowd if you’ve taken the time to send personal thank you. With the job market proving to become increasingly competitive, any advantage you can gain over other candidates is surely worthwhile. What would 60 million stamp collectors do? With such a large number of stamp collectors in the world the postal service is a constant source of culture and tradition that has seen John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Maria Sharapova join the stamp collecting ranks. With the British Guiana 1c magenta selling for a cool £4.66m and the most expensive item in weight and volume ever known, the postal service has helped sustain the hobby of millions who take joy in looking after and collecting valuable stamps. Romance Whenever Hollywood decides to break out the hankies and craft a new romance movie, you can rest assured that there will always be a scene where the boy woo’s the girl with a romantic letter, expressing his complicated but soon to be overcome obstacles of affection. “My friend really likes you” messages on Facebook really don’t cut the mustard in comparison. So the next time you want to send someone a message, have a think about how important his or her reply is to you. It may just be worthwhile enduring the temporary affects of cramp.

Curious Addresses

Curious Addresses are the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format, such as a poem or a picture. These are fascinating and beautiful works of art to view, but probably less of a joy to the poor postman or postwoman who has to decipher them!

The address has been scattered across and combined within this image. (E3243.10)

The address has been scattered across and combined within this image. (E3243.10)

To mark the release of our latest podcast The Curious Culture of Letter Writing with Emma Harper, we’ve added seven curious addresses from our collection to Flickr. Can you work out the addresses? When you think you’ve got it out, click on the image to reveal the correct answer.

Read Emma Harper’s blog previewing The Curious Culture of Letter Writing.

A Curious Culture of Letter Writing

In December 2011, as some of you may remember, BPMA and the BBC produced a collaborative radio series entitled the People’s Post. One episode of that series focussed on the culture of letter writing. Ever since this episode I have been intrigued by this subject and the many different forms letters have taken, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Century. As a result I decided to delve into the BPMA collection to see whether a culture of letter writing was reflected in the objects and files in the collection.

On Thursday 20th June at 7pm I’ll be giving a talk in which I use objects from our collection as a basis to explore how postal reform helped the development of this culture of letter writing and sharing some of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered.

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Some of the broader themes I’ll be looking at are the introduction of the penny post, the development of envelopes and postcards, as well as the sending of cards for special occasions such as Christmas. I am by no means a postal historian and this is much more an introduction to some of the main changes in the 19th Century postal system and how these are reflected in the objects I’ve found within the BPMA’s collection and the social history they tell.

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

These objects range from various Curious Addresses – the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format such as a poem or a picture; Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; the Express Delivery form used by suffragettes to post themselves as ‘human letters‘ and an account of a kitten being sent through the post as well as numerous postcards and letters.

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

Come along to the Phoenix Centre, London, on Thursday 20th June at 7pm to find out more…

– Emma Harper, Curator

See images from the Curious Culture of Letter Writing on Flickr.

Visit to the Postal Museum Store

Photography student Stuart Matthews has written this guest blog for us…

On Saturday 6th April I ventured to Loughton, Essex to visit The British Postal Museum Store for the Pillar Box Perfection open day. Currently studying photography at the University of Bedfordshire, I’m now in my final year working on my final major project. The visit was in aid of my university project ‘POST’ a project which looks at pillar boxes and how my generation rarely write any more.

"Pillar box alley" at The British Postal Museum Store.

“Pillar box alley” at The British Postal Museum Store.

We live in an age now where we are constantly tuned into our digital social lives by texting, instant messaging and emailing. In my generation the everyday analogue process of posting a letter is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Postboxes lie dormant, statues and monuments of a bygone era. Fond of analogue tradition I decided I wanted to get myself and as many people involved as possible mailing postcards in the form of photographs.

The premise is simple:

  1. Take a photograph of a pillar box (Has to be taken landscape)
  2. Get the photo printed at the 6×4 (Postcard size)
  3. Once printed, write directly on the back of the photograph (Write whatever comes to mind, your thoughts on pillar boxes, maybe the digital age, something personal? A quote, or song lyrics? Maybe describe the location of the photo?)
  4. Then stick on a stamp, add my address and send it to me in the post:
    166 Vandyke Road
    Leighton Buzzard
    LU7 3HS
Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

By getting people to photograph postboxes I hope to create a large topology to showcase the results, which will I hopefully display in a gallery space. For the time being I’ve set up a blog site where I’ve regularly up load all the entries sent to me. Which you can visit here: www.thegreatpostproject.wordpress.com.

As I love a challenge, I am hoping that my project will make people take notice of postboxes again and in the grander scheme get younger people involved in writing letters and postcards. Although it may be wishful thinking, only time will tell.

Postcard showing the message "What's the Rush!!".

Postcard showing the message “What’s the Rush!!”.

The open day at The British Postal Museum Store was a great way to learn more about the history of the pillar box. Discovering the different types whilst being able to identify them I found it to be a rewarding experience. It really has helped me, by giving me a historical outlook which I can now apply to the project.

The staff were tremendously helpful giving talks throughout the day, and answering all my questions. A big thank you to those who work and are involved in The British Postal Museum & Archive you generosity hasn’t been unnoticed.

Their generosity also allowed me to visit London this week to participant in my very own From Pillar to Post: GPO London walking tour as I was unable to go last month! (It was only natural that I dropped in to say Hello at the Royal Mail Archives)

If you are reading this and feel intrigued by my project feel free to visit the POST blog site and get involved, and last but not least please do visit the The British Postal Museum Store when you can, it is worth it!

Welcome to 2013

This year will be an exciting year at The British Postal Museum & Archive. While many staff are working hard to develop our new museum and archive others are continuing to organise events and exhibitions.


The first of our talks takes place next month and features Chris West, author of First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps. In his talk Chris will discuss the book and go in depth on some of the stories. Last year Chris wrote a blog for us about how he came to write his book, and you can buy a copy from our online shop or purchase one at the event.

In March Oliver Carter-Wakefield of Kings College London will speak on Illness and Absence in the Victorian Post Office. Consumption, necrosis and mental derangement were just some of the reasons Victorian postmen called in sick – and they weren’t always skiving!

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

Postal Mischief with David Bramwell.

In April David Bramwell will present a slide-show talk on how the postal system was used for the purposes of mischief making, and in June BPMA Curator Emma Harper will explore a less weird but just as wonderful use of the Royal Mail when she explores the culture of letter writing in 19th and 20th Centuries.

Tickets for all our talks are only £3.00 (or £2.50 concession) and can be booked online.


Our ever popular tours will be held throughout 2013. Bookings are now open for three tours of the Royal Mail Archive and six tours of our Museum Collection. These guided tours are led by our archivists and curators, who will give you a rare behind the scenes look at our collections storage facilities and an insight in to what they care for. Book now for these tours as they sell out quickly!

Walking tours of postal London run once a month and are operated by our partners Cityguides. Tours start at Farringdon Station and end at Bank, taking you in to the City of London which was once the heartland of the British Post Office. There is no need to book for these tours – just turn up on the day. See our website for details.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

See the sights of postal London on our walking tours.

Special Events

The Museum Store, where we are house our full of collection of pillar boxes and vehicles, will play host to two special events this year. The first, Pillar Box Perfection, taking place on 6 April, will offer a range of activities for all ages based around the iconic pillar box. The second, Museums at Night at the Museum Store, is part of an initiative taking place in May in which museums stay open in the evening. We’ll tell you more about this event nearer to the time. Both of these special events are free of charge.


Visitors to the Royal Mail Archive in London can still see our Diamond Jubilee display of stamps from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. We also have a permanent exhibition, The Museum of the Post Office in the Community, at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shorpshire. The Museum is located above a recreated Victorian post office – a fascinating place to visit in itself – and is free to visit as part of your entry to Blists Hill.

Part of our much-loved collection of General Post Office posters from the 1930s-1960s will go on display at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon in March. This is part of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, and the public may visit the exhibition in the Hospital’s designated display area during their opening hours.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley - this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Please pack parcels very carefully, poster by Tom Eckersley – this will be on display as part of Designs on Delivery.

Also on tour is our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which can be seen at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire from March and at Aysgarth Station Heritage Site, North Yorkshire in May. The exhibition looks at the role of the Post Office during the Great War.

Visit our website for full details of our programme of events and exhibitions.

The Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case

Today marks 180 years since the birth of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. To celebrate this occasion I thought I’d share with you a group of items from our museum collection invented by Lewis Carroll himself, namely, The Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case and Carroll’s accompanying Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing booklet.

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case was not intended by Carroll to be carried around in a pocket but rather to be kept with your writing materials in an envelope case or similar. Inside the stamp case there are 12 separate pockets for stamps of each denomination at the time, from ‘½d’ right up to 1 shilling, with an extra pocket for the most used price of one penny. Each pocket could comfortably hold up to six stamps.

'Wonderland' postage stamp case, interior - 12 separates pockets for stamps of various stamp values, 1889 (OB1995.415/2)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, interior – 12 separates pockets for stamps of various stamp values, 1889 (OB1995.415/2)

What made Carroll invent it, as he states in his accompanying booklet was

the constantly wanting Stamps of other/ values, for foreign Letters, Parcel Post, &c.,/ and finding it very bothersome to get at the/ kind I wanted in a hurry.

The case is a lovely item in itself, besides its functional purpose, as it contains what Carroll refers to as two ‘Pictorial Surprises’. The case comes in an outer cover which has a chromolithographic image of Alice holding the Duchess’s crying baby, an illustration that does not appear in Carroll’s books. However, when you take hold of the stamp case within and pull it out, the baby turns into a pig.

'Wonderland' postage stamp case, exterior - printed with chromolithographic images, 1889 (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889 (OB1995.415/1)

In Carroll’s opinion

If that doesn’t surprise you, why, I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised if your own Mother-in-law suddenly turned into a Gyroscope!

The case and cover also feature an illustration of the Cheshire cat on the reverse.

In his Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing Carroll shares with the reader his thoughts and opinions on how to begin, go on with, and end a letter, many of which I’m sure the Post Office would applaud to this day such as the golden rule of ‘write legibly’. However, the booklet also has nuggets of witty repartee often presented in the form of conversations between Carroll and the reader that make for entertaining reading.

'Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing By Lewis Carroll', which accompanies The 'Wonderland' postage stamp case, 1889 (OB1995.416/3)

‘Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing By Lewis Carroll’, which accompanies The ‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, 1889 (OB1995.416/3)

First published in 1889, the stamp case and booklet show the extent to which there was a culture of letters developing throughout the nation, indeed Carroll states:

I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.

Even in this short work, Carroll uses his playful nature as a vehicle for sharing his interests and enthusiasms, in this case, letter writing.

– Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

To see these items on our online catalogue please search for Wonderland on our online catalogue.

A Culture of Letters

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at the culture of letters that had arisen in Great Britain by the end of the 18th Century, with people from many different backgrounds writing letters for a variety of reasons. In this blog I hope to show how this culture continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, illustrated by items from BPMA’s museum collection.

Quite a lot of letters in our collection are written by the Post Office rather than individuals; these deal with official matters such as examinations and appointments however even these still had a personal touch such as this letter informing Claude Kirby that:

it is practically certain you will be offered appointment as SC&T [Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist], as a result of the position which you took in the November 1935 examination.

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

It is often this type of letter that fulfils an official purpose which survive; however, the BPMA also has examples of the more personal, individual letters through which show how people began to share their observations with each other, and which marked the beginning of the instant communication revolution that has emerged in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Many of these more personal letters are love letters: this example is written by a Robert Abbott to his sweetheart Mary.

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

The hand drawn flower in the top left corner sets the scene as he goes on to talk tenderly about a number of things, including the approaching birthday of his sister who

had she been in this world, she would have been thirty-three. But she is more blessed in that state where ‘there is Time no longer’

The culture of letter writing allowed people to express their feelings in a more personal way than ever before; another letter from our collection is from a sailor serving on the HMS Grampus in 1846 to his father, in it he describes the funeral of a colleague.

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

For many, letter writing became more than just a method of communicating information, events or feelings; it was also a way of displaying their creativity as shown by the emergence of what is known as ‘curious addresses’.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

These are envelopes decorated by the sender with pictures, or short verses, often incorporating the address within the picture rather than writing it out in full and testing the knowledge of the postal staff in the process!

BPMA has quite a few curious addresses in the collection, including this particular example which was sent to a Vera Tolhurst on 11/11/1918 in honour of Armistice Day.

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Prior to the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840 hardly any letters were sent in envelopes as they counted as an additional sheet and were charged as such. By 1855 however, it was estimated that 93% of domestic letters were sent in envelopes, allowing the development of curious addresses along with it. This is just one of many ways in which people across the country began to engage and react to changes in the postal service creating a real culture of letters.

There are many more items in the BPMA collection that show this culture of letters; see our Flickr set for larger versions of the items in this article, and look out for more blogs on this subject in the future.

– Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Culture of Letters. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Pedal Powered Postmen from the Past

From Friday 21st to Sunday 23rd October 2011, Bloomsbury’s open spaces and venues will be coming alive with an amazing programme of dance, music, arts, guided walks, theatre, workshops, talks, secret sessions and much, much more as part of the Bloomsbury Festival 2011. BPMA is delighted to be taking part in this year’s Festival.

Children’s Activities

On Saturday 22 October we will be running sessions throughout the day from the children’s tent in Russell Square. We will be using a vintage postman’s parcel tricycle from the Learning team’s handling collection and offering an array of family activities, including the chance to:

  • Take part in a postal pop quiz
  • Make a craft keepsake to take away
  • Meet a postman from the past
  • Find out more about BPMA

If weather and technology permits, we hope to be able to ride the tricycle around the square to attract attention, with Access and Learning Manager Andy Richmond dressed as a postman from the past. Find out more on the Bloomsbury Festival website.

Our parcel tricycle

Our parcel tricycle

Letter Writing and Mailart

Other events of interest are Letter Lounge, a workshop at the October Gallery to write the letters you never have time for, and 2 to the power of 10, a mailart project at the Orange Dot Gallery bringing together 32 contemporary Bloomsbury artists and creative types.

The Bloomsbury Festival is completely free to attend – we hope to see lots of BPMA support there on the day!