Every few years I find myself hunched over a keyboard, transcribing handwritten script for posterity.
Call me a sucker for history or a glutton for punishment. Over the years I’ve transcribed a friend’s Civil War letters, and done the same for 34 years of my mother’s diaries. I’ve also copied out my father’s travel journal from Out West in 1939 and the writing of my grandmother who made a “motor tour” of the East Coast that very same year.
This summer, I transcribed the last of a four-year set of journals that survived the Great Depression. Opal, my mother’s sister, kept a diary from 1930-1933. I’d put off 1932 because the handwriting was impossible to read without a magnifying glass. Finally, though, I set a deadline and tackled the chore. No, torture would be close to the truth.
The tedium of deciphering cramped handwriting isn’t for the faint of heart. But besides that, writing the daily comings and goings of most anyone’s life is…well…boring.
My Aunt Opal squeezed her golden thoughts into a space one inch by two inches, so deciphering the entries was service beyond the call of duty. How she wrote such small script is beyond me. The nib of her fountain pen must have been the size of a hypodermic needle.
Opal’s life as a college freshman at Eastern Illinois State Teachers College gave me a glimpse of college life during the Great Depression. Every single day she recorded when she got up, when she went to bed, what classes she attended, who she’d seen and what she’d done. And virtually every day there was a mention of mail. “Got letter today from…” or “Got card today from…” “Wrote letter to …” or the dreaded “No mail.”
It seems so quaint, the idea that people wrote their thoughts on paper, and mailed them to childhood friends and family and sweethearts. In Opal’s case, the mail was regularly dispatched twice a day—a practice that continued into the middle of the century.
I could identify with her anticipation of mail. I remember getting cards and letters in college. It was a thrill to go by the mail slots and find treasure waiting for me: a letter from a friend, a postcard from Mom, a party invitation, a sorority bid. It was such a bummer to have no mail to open. In the 1970s, letters were still handwritten, and it took at least a day or two—or more—for those precious messages to make their way through the postal system.
For Opal in the 1930s, mass media didn’t come into play until one of the girls acquired a portable radio. Soon those in her rooming house were “radioing,” listening to live football games and music and newscasts. On Nov. 8, 1932, Opal listened to the election returns that sent Franklin D Roosevelt to the White House. She and her roommate listened until midnight.
A month later, Opal listened to the Notre Dame-California football game live on Dec. 10. Now she could enjoy her favorites, Guy Lombardo and Wayne King.
The presence of the radio reminded me of the time I installed a portable television in my dorm room to watch TV shows and, as it happened, the Watergate hearings, a production that became as tedious as translating tiny handwriting into readable text.
Opal, I learned, rarely called home, which would have been long distance. Neither did students in my day. The tradition in the 1970s, at least, was to make those calls Sunday evening, when rates dropped, though all too often the caller competed for a limited number of lines. I remember the telephone company recording “We’re sorry. All circuits are busy now. Please try your call again later. Good bye.”
For better or worse, technology has all but eliminated the handwritten letter or the notion of exorbitant long-distance charges. We’d rather text anyway.
So when was the last time I received a handwritten letter with a stamp on it? Not counting Christmas cards or postcards, I do know who sent it: Rev. Fred Thompson of Newton, sharing his caring thoughts, as he always does. Of course the handwritten envelope grabbed my attention at once, for in these days of Instagram and Snapchat, an actual letter is the gold standard more than ever.
Tammy Wilson is a writer from Newton. Contact her at email@example.com