Story telling, song, festivals and initiations are just some of the many ways people of the past tried to preserve their traditions and memories. People marked items as a means of passing information to others, this included marking of stone, indents in clay, knotted lengths of cord and scratching of plates of lead, copper and wood with a style made of iron.
Babylonians wrote astronomical observations on bricks of clay, the Chinese tablets of stone on ancient monuments, the introduction of characters from nature, fire, water, beasts of the earth and birds of flight, the beginning of the Syllabic method of writing i.e. the use of characters to represent sounds.
According to the testimony of ancient historian Hellanicus the first recorded hand written letter (epistle) was by Persian Queen Atossa daughter of Syrus, mother of Xerxes around 500 BC.
The leaves of plants and the bark of trees advanced the use of writing. The linden tree was particularly good allowing the folding of its bark. Egyptian papyrus made possible the ancient libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. The Roman Emperor Claudius developed a new stronger type of cross layered papyrus which was not damaged by use of the calamus (reed).
Papyrus became so popular a writing material that laws where introduced preventing it leaving its country of origin in the East. This caused a shortage of papyrus in the West which led to the introduction of new writing materials Vellum and Parchment produced from animal skins. Saxons of the dark ages used the bark of the beech tree, called boc, from whence comes the word book.
The style (pen) used in ancient times was made from wood, metal or bone shaped to a point. A reed was used on papyrus and parchment dipped in Indian/China ink, made from the secretion of cuttlefish. The 5th century saw the use of (goose) quills in Saxon England.
Lead pencils were used in ancient Greece but only as a temporary marker to be rubbed out later. It wasn’t until the 14th century that pencils made from a lead composite became popular and in common use as a writing implement.
About the 10th century from the Far East to the West came cotton paper which was in common use by the 12th century. A great advance in writing material came in the 14th century with the introduction of paper made from linen rags. This method of making paper continued for several hundred years.
The Roman Emperor Trajan commanded that positus (carriers) be stationed at regular distances with chariots waiting to transport important documents, this is where the word post is derived.
Prior to 1840 letters were delivered by courier, coach or horse rider. The receiver of the letter had to pay on its receipt and the cost was dependant on the number of pages and distance travelled. To prevent the contents of the letter from being read by others they were sealed using a coloured wax with ring or handheld seal.
In May 1840 Great Britain introduced the first prepaid stamp nationwide postal delivery service, with the Penny Black stamp (portrait of the young Queen Victoria) for letters under half an ounce and the Twopenny Blue stamp for letters over. This was soon followed by other countries introducing similar systems.
The United States introduced a limited postal service in August 1842 followed by a uniform 5 cents charge in 1845 and standardised stamps in 1847.
History of handwritten letters
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