When Did the Mail Love Go?

By Mark Skoultchi

January 4, 2011

Maybe it was prompted by our fevered writing, stamping and sending holiday cards, but at the Catchword offices this week we’ve been bellowing along to our playlist of “songs about mail”…

  • The Letter / Box Tops (RIP Alex Chilton!)
  • Death Letter Blues / Son House
  • E-Bow The Letter / R.E.M. (when they were a four piece force, not that lame-o trio)
  • Strawberry Letter 23 / Shuggie Otis
  • Please Read the Letter / Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
  • Love Letter / Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (sniff…)
  • Love Letters / Aretha Franklin
  • Letters to the Far Reaches / The Promise Ring

And so on…

And that gets us to wondering…

When did mail lose its magic, its allure?

And is the stuff we get every day really mail, or is there a better word for it?

After all, the USPS delivers 177 billion pieces of mail annually (and at least 100 billion of that volume surely has to be those come-ons from Capital One). Catchword weeps for the many trees that give their lives in service to those glossy brochures.

Mail used to be something to look forward to. Now it’s below flossing on the enjoyment scale.

Plus, the use of conventional/traditional mail has changed. The volume of first class mail declined 22% from 1998 to 2007 (frankly, we would have thought closer to 82%). Mostly it’s all about email.

Meanwhile, lately we’ve seen the arrival of other adversaries; Et tu, Twitter? Will instant messaging will further hasten mail towards obsolescence?

Indeed, mail is in danger of becoming a quaint relic, much like the telegram. When was the last time you sent a telegram? Us neither.

We think this decline is a shame. Sure, digital communication is lots faster. But we think something is lost with the absence of handwritten thoughts—ink on paper—between two people.

While the roar of change is unlikely to abate, perhaps we can start to reclaim some of the magic with a simple redefinition or clarification of the word mail. What would be an acceptable substitute? At the least, we should distinguish between a) personal, emotionally rich letters and b) pragmatic, formal communication.

a) Fine Mail versus b) Commercial Mail

a) Correspondence versus b) Business Communication

a) Personal versus b) Professional mail

a) Message versus b) Transmission

a) Letter versus b) Dispatch

a) Casual mail versus b) Formal mail

a) Written mail versus b) Printed mail

a) Screed versus b) Notice

a) Discourse versus b) Announcement

a) Note versus b) Communiqué

Catchword isn’t a gaggle of Luddites yearning for the days of oil lamps and quill pens. Rather, we just wish communication could be a bit more stylish and enjoyable. Starting with the mailbox.

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