Pushing the envelope: college students set out to bring back handwritten letters


In between cadaver labs and illustration classes, Carly Bartel — a biomedical illustration student at the Cleveland Institute of Art — sits on the floor of her Cleveland apartment with glue sticks, National Geographic magazines, cardstock, scissors and gel pens surrounding her.

She thumbs through the magazines to find photographs to collage and looks through books to find inspirational quotations.

Bartel, a 21-year-old Salt Lake City native, is making mail.

Carly Bartel explores Cleveland for an afternoon. Photo courtesy of Carly Bartel

“I think it’s sad that no one sends letters anymore because it’s so much more personal than a text message or an e-mail,” Bartel said. “People really appreciate when you take the time to say hello, or thank you or I miss you.”

Bartel and her friends at school started making mail last year as a way to revitalize the tradition of sending handwritten letters.

One autumn day, Bartel said, she opened her mailbox and a fancy and decorated envelope was sitting in the otherwise empty slot.

“I was just so excited,” Bartel said. “The envelope was hand-crafted and the note really spoke to me.”

Amber Esner, a 22-year-old illustration student at Cleveland Institute of Art, sent Bartel that piece of mail.

Esner said she started making mail because she was growing tired of impersonal communication that lacks any creativity.

“We e-mail, we send messages on Facebook, we text. But I think every time someone opens the mailbox and sees something beautiful waiting for them, they’re reminded that creativity and thoughtfulness really do matter,” Bartel said. “That’s something Amber and I are trying to remind everyone.”

In an age of digitized communication, the dying art of letter writing is not only being noticed at a Cleveland art school, but also in the guts of one of our government’s oldest agencies. As our society becomes increasingly engulfed by instant and impersonal communication, there are those who desperately crave the opposite.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) announced last November that it ended the fiscal year more than $5 billion in debt. Their year-end loss would have neared $10.6 billion had Congress not postponed a mandated payment of $5.5 billion to pre-fund retiree health benefits, the agency said.

“The continuing and inevitable electronic migration of first-class mail, which provides approximately 49 percent of our revenue, underscores the need to streamline our infrastructure and make changes to our business model,” said Joe Corbett, the agency’s Chief Financial Officer.

USPS reported in 2010 that its first-class mail volume was 78.2 billion pieces, compared to a reported 103.7 billion pieces in 2001. Similarly, 574,000 people were employed by USPS in 2010 compared to the 775,903 people employed in 2001—a number that steadily declines each year.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that overall mail volume decreased by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010, and that the agency expects to lose another 150 billion pieces by the year 2020.

“It’s easy for me to see that the mail system in this country is being undermined by our constant obsession to socially network or virtually connect,” Bartel said. “I think about how often I sent a text message or how much time I spend on Facebook. Having a relationship with someone via the Internet is so impersonal. It’s not really you communicating, it’s that virtual idea of you.”

Last fall, Esner created a book called “How To Send Mail” as a way to remind people that they can—and should—communicate personally.

The book went through the process of what types of paper one can use, how to build envelopes, what to include inside, and how to write something meaningful, Esner said.

The book was featured at an art gallery near the Cleveland Insitute of Art campus.  Hundreds of people saw the book on display and one of the college’s trustees purchased the book for her personal collection, Bartel said.

Bartel and Esner are not alone in calling out the current generation’s impersonal communication habits.

Stephen Elliot, creator and editor of the online culture magazine The Rumpus.net, launched a print subscription last month called “Letters in the Mail”. Elliot said subscribers receive a letter nearly every week from well-known authors like Dave Eggers and Janet Fitch.

“Think of it as the letters you used to get from your creative friends, before this whole internet/email thing,” Elliot wrote on the site. The letters are circulating to hundreds of mailboxes around the country, Elliot said.

Bartel said she hopes that mail making and letter writing will catch on around the country.

“Making this mail has kind of been a chain reaction. You realize how great it is getting something so thoughtful, and you want to send something back, and to other people. A bunch of us are doing it at school now. I hope this trend spreads outside the art scene here, and into communities everywhere.”

Hannah Harrington-Dunn, 16, received a letter from Bartel in the mail in early March.

The envelope was made of brown cardstock and a bird was perched next to the address. The card inside had green stitching on the cover that read “I love you” and the note inside donned Bartel’s elegant and swoopy handwriting.

“I was having a hard week,” Harrington-Dunn said. “But then I saw this pretty little piece of mail and I was just so content. I started tearing up when I read it and now I just want to save it forever.”

That kind of reaction makes all of her time creating the mail absolutely worth it, Bartel said.

“I feel so much more connected with those whom I care about. It’s my handwriting, and my time spent, and it’s a piece of myself that I give to someone else in order to say ‘I love you’.”

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