Cambridge is situated just across the Charles River from Boston proper. It is home to Harvard University, MIT and a whole host of amazing libraries and archives and, for almost a decade now, early summer has brought a week-long event called Cambridge Open Archives. The event is comprised of a slew of free tours of the city’s rich collection of archives and museums, organized around a given theme that changes from year-to-year.
A few years ago, the chosen theme was “food” and, as I have always enjoyed eating, I thought that would be a great lens through which to be introduced to some of the archives on the list. One tour I joined brought us to the MIT Museum where they had pulled from their trove of treasures a fascinating assortment of items - a mastication machine that mimicked the effects of chewing, some of the earliest barcodes (they were originally round!), and they also touched on how work at MIT in the 1940s had finally made the process of canning food a safe one. This leap forward in food safety, along with other social and technological developments, contributed to the surge in consumption of preserved and pre-prepared foods in the United States during the 1950s.
Why do I bring this up? It recently came to mind because I was chatting with someone about how innovation has changed our lives - more often than not for the better (greater food safety!) although, conceding at the same time, that there are invariably some losses, or drawbacks that accompany the march of progress. One such example that came up in the conversation was letter writing, largely falling by the wayside after e-mail and texting were introduced.
It was at that point that I thought of the MIT Museum, of the changes ushered in by the 1950s: canned food, pre-prepared food, processed foods, factory-made bread, the rise of restaurants, fast food chains, microwaves, and cake mixes. These changes were for many folks great positives, translating as they did to greater convenience, time saved, increased leisure time and the like. On the other side of the coin though, it meant less people learning how to cook from scratch, as well as changes to the average diet that may not have been for the better. But, take a look at us now. About fifty years later, there has been a bit of a renaissance in traditional methods of food preparation and distribution - from sourdough bread baking, to home pickling, to beer brewing, to cheesemaking, to farmers markets.
I posit that we may now be seeing a similar kind of renaissance kicking off for letter writing. It’s getting underway a few decades after the food renaissance, but perhaps this just means it’s right on schedule. E-mail and texting were also introduced a few decades after the innovations in food storage and preparation came on the scene, so it seems logical that a return to letter writing might be similarly staggered time-wise.
I don’t imagine that letter writing will ever return to pre-internet levels, but I think that as with food preparation, we’re definitely witnessing a renewed appreciation for the practice. After all, e-mail will never be able to replace the tactile pleasure of opening a letter, of holding in your hands something that was last held by your family member, friend or loved one. You can’t doodle on e-mails with the same whimsy that you can on paper, there’s no envelope to decorate, nor can you choose beautiful stamps with which to adorn your missive (perhaps the only exception being e-mail invitation services that purposely try to mimic the experience of receiving a real life letter).
Thanks to Instagram, my own love for letter writing has been rebooted by the extraordinary calligraphers, hand letterers, vintage postage shops, and letterpress printers all around the world who are sharing the fruits of their labors online. Inspired by them, I have steadily been writing more and more letters of late - and, if anecdotal evidence is anything to judge by, others are too. Clearly, things will never be as they were 100 years ago (food safety wise, that’s probably a good thing!), but I love receiving letters from friends and family members, so I’m rooting for this revival of personal correspondence which, incidentally, brings me to the main thrust of this post (finally, right?!): gift ideas for the letter writers in your life. If you know someone who loves putting pen to paper too, it’s my hope that the following list will help you find the perfect gift.
BLACKWING LIMITED EDITION SUBSCRIPTION - While most folks don’t usually write letters in pencil, chances are the letter writer in your life enjoys quality writing instruments no matter what they are doing. A short while back, we published a post about some of our all-time favorite pens and pencils and Blackwing pencils were, without a doubt, going to be on that list from its inception. My first experience with Blackwings was thanks to a very dear and thoughtful friend who gave me a box one holiday season and totally changed up my pencil experience. Not only do Blackwing leads glide across the page in a way I had never before experienced (thanks to a touch of wax mixed into the graphite) - but, the erasers are marvelous, and perfectly shaped to do targeted erasing. Your letter writer may use pencils to draw guidelines on envelopes to neatly address them, or outline his/her hand lettering efforts before putting pen to paper, in addition to tasks such as list making, sketching and/or doodling. If that sounds about right, I venture to suggest that signing them up for a limited edition Blackwing subscription may well be the perfect gift.
FOUNTAIN PEN - Easily one of the best presents I ever received was a fountain pen. It was the first time someone had given me something that so perfectly matched my interests and was such a genuine surprise. I had never aspired to own (or even thought of owning) a fountain pen - but, by golly, once I started using one, I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t. I like to keep backup ink cartridges on hand and occasionally switch back and forth between black and blue inks and, if you are gifting a pen, you may wish to tuck in a couple sets of ink cartridges in different colors - generally, they’re not too pricey. As for which pen to get? Buying a nice fountain pen is like buying a piece of jewelry - personal taste is very much a factor and costs can vary widely. And, as with jewelry, there are many makers out there. A sampling of well known names might include: Diplomat, Faber-Castell, Franklin-Christoph, Lamy, Montblanc, Pelikan, Pilot and/or Sailor Pen. The Fountain Pen Hospital, located in Tribeca (in New York City), is that rare find, a store that specializes in fountain pens. Have a browse of their website if you can’t go in person and you’ll see that my list of pen makers is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to new models, The Fountain Pen Hospital also sells vintage pens. And, of course, it can be quite fun poking around on eBay for vintage pens. If you find a pen there that needs some help, The Fountain Pen Hospital (unsurprisingly perhaps, given their name) has a repair department. Or, if your chosen pen specifically needs a nib tune up, you may wish to get in touch with Mike Masuda who specializes in repairing and adjusting nibs.
CALLIGRAPHY PENS AND MARKERS - As far as I have been able to glean, calligraphy pens are a kind of subset of fountain pens. In most cases, they use a different kind of ink and generally the nib has a straight-edge point, as opposed to a dot-like point. Why am I splitting them out here, then? Because, in addition to the fountain pen versions, I have recently discovered (largely thanks to local stationer, Bob Slate) a host of non-traditional markers that cleverly imitate calligraphy pens. Yasutomo’s Y&C Calligraphy marker with a 2mm nib is absolutely marvelous. I am also enjoying experimenting with several of Itoya’s Calligraphy Classics Doubleheader markers in different colors. And, not exactly calligraphy pens (since the nibs aren’t as firm or sharply angled), but in a similar vein are Pentel’s Sign Pens, another favorite. Although they don’t give the angled delineation of a calligraphy marker, they are great at expressing fat and thin strokes, depending on the degree of pressure applied by the writer. In summary, a traditional, fountain pen style calligraphy pen makes for a stellar gift, but I’d also venture to suggest that a selection of calligraphic markers can make for a grand gift too!
BLOTTER - So, your recipient already has a fountain pen, or a calligraphy set. We’re going to bet that in 9 out of 10 cases, they don’t have a blotter. A blotter used to be a standard item in desk sets back in the day, given the wider use of fountain pens. In order to avoid smudges and splotches, folks would rock a blotter over their letter when they’d finished writing it. Whether or not your recipient is using a fountain pen, or experimenting with some fantastic calligraphy markers, chances are they have one or more pens that always seems to take forever to dry, whether due to the ink, the paper being used - or both. If you’d like to give them a tool to rectify the problem, while at the same time, giving them a trip in the hot tub time machine, consider a vintage blotter as a gift. Many such blotters are available on eBay or Etsy, as are packs of vintage blotting paper. Alternately, go with a brand new blotter - personally, I like the looks of this wooden J. Herbin blotter set.
WAX SEAL - Is your recipient a bit of a romantic? A fan of Pride & Prejudice or The Scarlet Pimpernel? If so, chances are a wax seal may well be a big hit. Wax seals were used in days of yore to seal up scrolls, letter packets, and envelopes, among other things. The advent of gummed envelopes rendered their primary purpose null and void, but they still have the power to add a lovely flourish to correspondence. I have ordered a couple of seals from Kustom Haus in Australia and was so impressed that I went back to them to order a custom little birdie seal when the time was right. I e-mailed back and forth with Karl who could not have been more helpful and patient as we worked to get the birdie sized just right. If you’re ordering from Kustom Haus, I recommend selecting some flexible wax sticks to accompany your gift. Or, if you are just in the market for wax sticks, do check out Canadian-based Kings Wax, a company that only sells sealing wax, stocking several varieties, including a massive rainbow selection of flexible wax sticks (the most likely to survive the mail) with no minimum order.
SPECIAL STATIONERY - You know how you can feel and even behave differently when you dress up for an evening out? Much as nice clothes have the power to make us stand up that bit straighter (posture!), good quality writing paper can make a big difference for a letter writer - and, for their recipient. Writing on something a cut or two above one’s go-to paper makes the act of letter writing that much more pleasurable. If you’re not quite sure where to start when it comes to sourcing high quality paper, check out our recent post where we highlight 10 stationers doing top notch work, encompassing letterpress printers and engravers alike.
ENVELOPE ADDRESSING GUIDES - Ok, the letter is written and ready to mail. What next? Address that envelope. If your recipient is anything like me, he/she might enjoy doing a bit of hand lettering or attempting a bit of calligraphy. But, to do that, one typically needs to draw some guidelines to keep one’s writing in line. Enter the ruler. Or, not? Some bright spark invented a thing called an envelope addressing guide which can either serve as a special kind of stencil to draw those lines lickety split, or as a guide while you write. I like to use mine for the former, preferring not to have it between my hand and the paper when I’m actually writing. But, as they say, different strokes for different folks - in this case, pen strokes (ha!). Basically, what I’m trying to say in a rather roundabout way is that folks can (and do) find envelope guides handy in a couple of ways. Lettermate’s version is the original guide and is 5” x 4” in size. I also like OPount’s 4-pack of guides. They are not as heavyweight as Lettermate’s, but since I use mine for speedy guideline drawing (not as guides while I write), this doesn’t really matter and I like having a selection of line spacings to choose from.
VINTAGE POSTAGE - Vintage postage is one of my most recent and favorite finds when it comes to elevating one’s outgoing mail. Stamps are available in a wide range of configurations - you can shop by denomination, color, or theme. Or, choose individual stamp packs and assemble a collection perfectly calibrated for your recipient. For example, chances are you’ll be able to find a stamp featuring your recipient’s favorite animal, writer, artist, flowers - or, stamps featuring your recipient’s state, or printed in their favorite color. For US postage, I have been especially happy with my purchases from these Etsy vendors: VintagePostageShop, ThePostagePlace, EnfieldPost, and LittlePostageHouse. If your recipient is not US-based, I recommend checking out Etsy or eBay to locate postage from a range of other countries. My only word of caution: make sure you source unfranked/uncanceled stamps as some vendors do sell used postage for things like scrapbooking or craft projects.
RUBBER STAMPS - So, I’ve talked about postage stamps, but I’d also like to bring rubber stamps to your attention. Unlike wax seals, these babies print up totally flat so are, without a doubt, compatible with the sorting machines at the post office, in addition to offering scope for additional coloring or detail work. A selection of rubber stamps for your recipient to gussy up their envelopes or stationery, along with some quality ink pads (I recommend ColorBox stamp pads made by Clearsnap - mine have lasted for years!), are a winning gift idea for the creative correspondent. I have found fantastic rubber stamps thanks to Etsy. Many vendors offer custom options too, if you think, for example, that your recipient might like to stamp their initials or a symbol of significance to them. And, of course, there are tons of brand new options available at the likes of Michael’s, Jo-Ann’s, and Paper Source. And, if you’re Boston-based, I definitely recommend checking out Black Ink’s Charles Street location for a stellar selection.
A CLASS PASS - Serving as perhaps my best anecdotal evidence for a letter writing renaissance is the recent proliferation of correspondence-related classes. I’m talking things like calligraphy, paper making, card making, hand lettering and letterpress printing classes. Here in Boston, I’ve done all of the above, with the exception of paper making (on my ‘to do’ list!). Chances are there are similar classes being scheduled near you too - be it by a national outfit like Paper Source, or by local artisans and printers. Here in Boston, for example, I have taken a couple of great calligraphy classes with Liz Roessler who teaches through her company, Lettering by Liz. Have a Google and you’re likely to turn up similar gems. What could be a better gift to your recipient than a chance for them to improve their letter writing skill set, especially when done in the company of fellow enthusiasts?
I hope that all of those ideas prove helpful to you as you suss out a gift for the letter writer in your life. As always, please do feel free to chime in with additional suggestions in the comments section below!
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