Mom might get a quick note in the mail. Sister might get a birthday card. But that’s about it. For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.
The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters - as well as the majority of bill payments - largely have been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.
“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Last year, the typical home received a personal letter about every seven weeks, according to the annual survey done by the post office. As recently as 1987 it was once every two weeks. That doesn’t include greeting cards or invitations.
It’s very different from the nation’s earlier days. When Benjamin Franklin was in charge of the mail, letters bound far-flung Americans together.
“If I write, it’s only to my mother and it’s a quick note,” said Andy Aldrich, an education program coordinator who lives in Vienna. He said he sends his mother a handwritten letter about once every four months. Otherwise, Mr. Aldrich said, he mostly communicates through emails, text messages and Skype with relatives.
Bob Cvetic, of Waldorf, Md., a health specialist with a federal law enforcement agency, said different forms of communication have different purposes.
“Emails are something quick,” he said. “Letters are letters. When I’m writing a letter to a friend, it’s a personal note. You can’t send an email saying ‘Hey, sorry to hear you lost your father.’ “
Mike Stanley of Silver Spring said he mostly uses the Postal Service to pay bills. He did send his sister a birthday card in August.
“I don’t send letters. I use the cellphone or email,” he said. “It’s faster.”
Even Mr. Stanley’s mailing of bill payments is no longer the norm, with the post office reporting that, for the first time, in 2010, fewer than 50 percent of all bills were paid by mail.
The Postal Service said the decline in letter-writing is “primarily driven by the adoption of the Internet as a preferred method of communication.”
The loss of that lucrative first-class mail is just one part of the agency’s financial troubles, along with payment of bills via Internet and a decline in other mail. The Postal Service is facing losses of $8 billion or more this year.
The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.
In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, Mr. Newbold explained.