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A letter is one person's written message to another pertaining to some matter of common concern. Letters can serve several purposes: when intimates are forced to spend time at great distances from one another, letters allow them to maintain the relationship; rulers, scholars, merchants, officials, and professionals use them to conduct affairs with their far-flung correspondents; poets and other writers may also use them as vehicles for self-expression. Letters contribute to the protection and conservation of literacy. Letters have been sent since antiquity and are mentioned in the Iliad. Both Herodotus and Thucydides mention letters in their histories.
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Historically, letters have existed from the time of ancient India, ancient Egypt and Sumer, through Rome, Greece and China, up to the present day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, letters were used to self-educate. Letters were a way to practice critical reading, self-expressive writing, polemical writing and also exchange ideas with like-minded others. For some people, letters were seen as a written performance. For others, it was not only seen as a performance but also as a way of communication and a method of gaining feedback. Letters make up several of the books of the Bible. Archives of correspondence, whether for personal, diplomatic, or business reasons, serve as primary sources for historians. At certain times, the writing of letters has risen to be an art form and a genre of literature, for instance in Byzantine epistolography.
In the ancient world letters were written on a various different materials, including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. From Ovid, we learn that Acontius used an apple for his letter to Cydippe.
As communication technology has diversified, posted letters have become less important as a routine form of communication. For example, the development of the telegraph drastically shortened the time taken to send a communication, by sending it between distant points as an electrical signal. At the telegraph office closest to the destination, the signal was converted back into writing on paper and delivered to the recipient. The next step was the telex which avoided the need for local delivery. Then followed the fax (facsimile) machine: a letter could be transferred electrically from the sender to the receiver through the telephone network as an image. Today, the internet, by means of email, plays a large part in written communications; however, these email communications are not generally referred to as letters but rather as e-mail (or email) messages, messages or simply emails or e-mails, with only the term "letter" generally being reserved for communications on paper.
Due to the timelessness and universality of letter writing, there is a wealth of letters and instructional materials (for example, manuals, as in the medieval ars dictaminis) on letter writing throughout history. The study of letter writing usually involves both the study of rhetoric and grammar.
Despite email, letters are still popular, particularly in business and for official communications. Letters have the following advantages over email:
Here is how a letter gets from the sender to the recipient:
However, in 2008, Janet Barrett from the UK, received a RSVP to a party invitation addressed to 'Percy Bateman', from 'Buffy', originally posted on 29 November 1919. It had taken 89 years to be delivered by the Royal Mail. However, Royal Mail denied this, saying that it would be impossible for a letter to have remained in their system for so long, as checks are carried out regularly. Instead, the letter dated 1919 may have "been a collector's item which was being sent in another envelope and somehow came free of the outer packaging".
There are a number of different types of letter:
By writing both across and down, the sender of a letter could save on postage.
A hand-written letter of Cesare Borgia.
A child's letter to Santa Claus.
An invitation letter to the ground-breaking of the Seattle Space Needle, 1961.
The resignation letter of Richard Nixon, 1974.