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What was... a thank-you letter?

Blog | By suzanne jowitt | Aug 29, 2023

The earliest surviving letter from Winston Churchill was a handwritten note to his mother.

In 1882, aged seven, he wrote to thank her for his gifts of ‘soldiers, flag and castle’.

The painstaking italic penmanship of the very young Churchill later gave way to the easy, flowing script of a man who dashed off handwritten thank-you letters most days of the week, as can be seen among the million items in the Churchill Papers.

Handwritten thank-you letters have made their mark in every civilisation. Persian Queen Atossa wrote the earliest surviving one in about 500 BC.

Before a national postage system and the launch of the Penny Black first stamp in 1840, the cost of receiving any letter had to be borne by the recipient, rather dimming the thoughtfulness of any thanks-giver.

By the 1860s, the penny postal system was booming. With up to 12 collections each day in Victorian London, you could write to thank your hostess of the night before, sprinkle the note with lavender water and have her reading it, scent still fresh, by the time she sat down to mid- morning coffee. Even with the invention of the typewriter in 1868, it remained infra dig until well into the 1930s to type any personal correspondence, perhaps especially a thank-you letter.

As a nation, we used to write thank- you letters for everything: a Christmas present, a dinner party the night before, or even just a thank-you for a little favour. Like the simple two-liner from Marilyn Monroe to a German swain in 1962: ‘Thank you for your champagne. It arrived, I drank it and I was gayer. Thanks again. My best, Marilyn Monroe.’

Nowadays, most people under the age of 30 wouldn’t know how to start tackling a handwritten thank-you letter. My 21-year-old daughter would, because she had a cruel and unusual mother who forced her to sit down every Boxing Day and write to thank relatives. The main

World, only to become lost in the thorns of Instagram. Or perhaps you cannot watch Question Time without tweeting about how annoying Fiona Bruce is.

It’s not your fault. The finest minds of a generation have worked extremely hard so that we all exist in a state of permanent distraction and are thus more susceptible to their malign moneymaking schemes.

It’s surprising just how invested many TV producers are in the idea of this multi-front assault. You’d imagine that if you were, say, Netflix, you’d want people to watch Netflix. Apparently not. ‘What the streamers want most right now is “second-screen content”, where you can be on your phone while it’s on,’ one screenwriter complained to the New Yorker recently.

She is one of thousands of Hollywood TV writers who recently went on strike in America over low pay, intolerable rule was to ‘get over the page’. As a result, she has beautiful, huge and loopy penmanship.

In 2022, an M&S poll showed that only nine per cent now send handwritten thank-you letters, compared with 20 per cent ten years before. Email, WhatsApp, SMS and other digital methods have erased the pen. There are even apps that can now ‘hand-write’ for you. Still, in a busy world, that same 2022 poll showed we are ever more alive to the ‘pro-social wellbeing benefits’ of gratitude. What says thank you more eloquently than the ritual of finding paper/ card/ envelope/ stamp/ pen, crafting your best copperplate, sprinkling some wit and sincerity, getting over the page, sealing it with a loving kiss and walking to the post box?

In April, when the price of a stamp went over £1, the final writing was on the wall for the posted thank-you. Still, consider the investment. £1 and a few minutes’ writing to thank someone for a gift will reap exponentially better presents from the giver in the future.

Susannah Jowitt