By Meg Crane

The first record of a written letter comes from 500 BC. The Persian Queen Atossa.

Since then, there have been many developments. The first letters were written on bricks of clay or stone tablets.

The paper

There have been many different types of papers since. Leaves and plants took some of the challenge out of communication. Egyptians and Romans used papyrus, which is where the word “paper” came from. This became so popular, that a law prevented the resource from leaving its country of origin. A papyrus shortage in other regions, as a result, led to the creation of vellum and parchment, which were made from animal skins. Bark of beech, mulberry, fig and daphne trees were also used.

In China, bamboo was the primary material used for writing on. Silk was sometimes also used, but the expense deterred it from being widely used. In the 10th century, cotton paper began to show up.

The paper was sent out of China, but no one could figure out how it was made. China was reluctant to share their secret, but eventually let it out.

By the 12th century, it has spread out of China and was a popular type of paper.

Italy adopted the method around the 13th century, using hemp and linen as their fibers. Paper made from linen rags became popular and remained so for several hundred years.

The creation of paper was generally a small-scale, artisan activity. It’s only purpose was to be written on. The production of paper was industrialized in the 1800s. The new machines were able to make paper out of wood pulp. This advancement is what lead to the type of paper and the wide variety of paper products we see today.

The pen

Initially, writing utensils were instruments used to carve into the writing surface. As paper was developed, something more delicate was required.

Wood, metal and bone were the main materials people used for pens. They would carve them to have points which would be dipped in ink made from the secretion of the cuttlefish. In the 5th century, goose quills were popularized.

However, they were difficult to write with. The style of writing in Europe was changed to accommodate this new pen.

In Greece, lead was used as a temporary marker that could later be rubbed off. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that pencils made from lead were widely used.

In the 1800s, metal nibs began to pop up and the use of quills died out.

Lewis Edson Waterman is credited with inventing the modern fountain pen in 1884. The ball point pen, felt tipped pen and other modern writing utensils followed over the next century.

The delivery

Being a messenger was a dangerous job. They might be robbed or killed along the way to delivering an important message from a government, military or king. But for a long time, this was the only way to send long-distance communication.

A relay system was eventually used.

Positus (carriers) were stationed at regular intervals. In the Roman Empire, they had chariots which they used to travel to the next positus to transport documents. In the Persian Empire, they simply used horses for this. The Greeks preferred athlete runners.

The Arabs had a completely different system using pigeons.

But letter writing for the common person became popular as literacy rates rose, religious outlooks changed, books became widely available and the printing press was invented.

Prior to the 1700s, it was assumed that letter writing was done predominantly by men. At this point, it began to be questioned if letter writing actually was a gendered task.

With the popularization of letter writing, there came a demand for ways for the common person to send their messages. In Europe, letters were delivered by courier, coach or horse rider. The sender would seal the letter with coloured wax to ensure the deliverer did not read it. The recipient had to pay for the delivery.

In 1840, Great Britain introduced the first prepaid stamp nationwide postal delivery service. The first stamps were the Penny Black stamp which had a portrait of Queen Victoria and the Twopenny Blue stamp. Other countries soon followed suit.

As letter writing became more accessible, and as the only means of long-distance communication, it came to be apart of formal education. Letter writing was a very important part of society, especially to immigrants in North America so that they could still have some connection to their family back home.

In the 19th century, with the invention of the telegraph, letter writing became one method of long-distance communication rather than the only one. As technology advanced, letter writing became an outdated form of communication, with many faster methods available. But there are many reasons that we shouldn’t get rid of our postal carriers just yet, and many of you aren’t.

Here are a few of the silly things our readers wrote as kids and sent in to us.


Meg Crane is the founder of Cockroach. Follow her on Twitter.

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