The disappearing art of handwritten letters

Recently, I sat down to write a short note of thanks. I noticed how difficult it was for me to make my writing legible. I spend most of my days writing, but like so many I don’t actually write. I type on a keyboard. I sign my name hundreds of times a year. I dash off a short note now and then. I cannot, however, remember the last time I actually wrote a letter. When I do sit down to hand-write more than a couple of sentences, I almost feel as if I’m back in grade school practicing cursive letters. I don’t believe my situation is unique. Fast e-mail and increasingly costly postage has changed the way we communicate. The art of handwriting letters is fast disappearing.

Little attention is given to ordinary, handwritten letters as a collectible. Letters written by the famous or letters describing historically significant events have long been collected, but every day letters hardly get any attention at all. Some early letters, from the 1820s or 1830s, appeal to some collectors because of their age, but later handwritten messages just aren’t of much interest to most.

I don’t know if run-of-the-mill handwritten letters will ever be a popular collecting area, but it’s an area that definitely deserves a look. I’m sure there are a few collectors out there who are already seeking such pieces, but collecting such material doesn’t even occur to most. I think collectors are missing out on a very enjoyable collecting experience by failing to note the value of the handwritten word. Ordinary letters don’t make impressive display pieces. They don’t make especially good conversation either. While I sometimes tell other collectors about my T.E. Lawrence letter, I seldom mention the letter of a little known individual I have that describes a fishing trip. Such letters can be filled with nostalgia, however. True, some are of little interest, but others make for fascinating reading. Even the events of everyday life back in the 1890s or 1910s will be of interest to most of us. The people who wrote these letters lived in a different world.

One great advantage of collecting such letters is that they are cheap. Purchased in lots, they often cost less than a dollar each—sometimes much less. Depending on where one looks, they can be difficult or easy to find. Ordinary handwritten letters seldom show up at flea markets, antique shows, antique shops, or malls. Most dealers don’t consider them desirable enough to handle. They are difficult to find at most yard and garage sales, too. Unfortunately, most people consider such old letters trash. A great many are simply tossed, which is quite a shame.

Auctions are the one source where handwritten letters are easy to find. Now and then I spot a box of old correspondence at a local sale. Usually, there is little interest in such lots and they sell for no more than a few dollars. The only real competition for such material is stamp collectors who may be after some of the stamps on the letters. Some lots may bring a hefty price from time to time, but that is the exception to the rule. Most often boxes of old letters sell for a song. While auctions are a good source, don’t expect to find something at every sale. It may be necessary to attend several sales to find a good lot. On the other hand, you might get lucky.

Another good auction source is eBay. While eBay nearly always has something of interest to offer, finding single hand-written letter or large lots of them can be difficult. The problem arises due to the lack of good search words. Run-of-the-mill handwritten letters don’t easily fall into the eBay categories either. They are autographed material, but only some are found in the autograph category. There are paper collectibles categories, but none of them exactly fit. It’s usually best to search a wide area of eBay for letters of interest. I tried searching all the categories for “handwritten letter.” Usually, such a general approach isn’t advisable as the matching auctions can number in the thousands. My effort realized only 112 items, however, quite manageable. A good many of the auctions were for letters written by the likes of Charles Dickens and Jefferson Davis. There were quite a few lots of interest, however. Some of these were single early letters with minimum bids of $10-$20.

Others were for lots of letters, some of them numbering in the hundreds. When I expanded my search to include the description as well as the title, the results increased to 794. Most of the additional lots had nothing to do with the handwritten letters I was seeking, however.  I next tried searching only the Collectibles category. This yielded 80 lots—347 when I widened the search to include the item description. This I found to be the most productive search. When seeking handwritten letters it may be worth your while to play around with search words. You may well come up with some that will yield better results that “handwritten letter.” The good news about the difficulty in finding lots on eBay is that they will be difficult for others to find, too. This will increase your chances of getting a good deal.

Chances are you won’t want to keep all the letters you buy. As with all antiques and collectibles, it’s best to go for quality, not quantity. Quality pieces in this collecting area include letters that are of special interest (for whatever reason), collections of correspondence the cover a period of years, and examples of especially fine hand-writing. These are the real treasures and are the items one should keep.

While most of a collection of handwritten letters won’t lend itself to impressive display, exceptional examples of fine hand-writing are quiet attractive, especially when framed and matted. We live in a world of typed and verbal communication. The art of hand-writing is dying. Very few now have the impeccable hand-writing that was once so valued. Some hand-written letters from the past border on calligraphy. They are true works of art. Someday, they may even be valued as such.

While a collection of hand-written letters may not be valuable in monetary terms, it should be protected from damage all the same. Avoid storing letters where they may draw moisture. Beware handling them too often as the acid on your fingers will damage the paper. Never tape or glue any paper collectible. Avoid direct sunlight at all costs. Nothing will destroy a vintage letter faster than being hit with direct sunlight for even an hour a day.

Chances are that a collection of hand-written letters will not appreciate in value a great deal. There could be a sudden surge of interest, of course, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to expect great monetary profit. Collecting isn’t about profit, however, it’s about enjoyment and nostalgia. Collecting old hand-written letters will provide plenty of both and at little cost, too! It’s nice to know that some inexpensive collectibles are still out there.

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.