The Three Mile Per Hour World

If Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), then perhaps we may
imitate Christ by examining communication, past, present, and future as well. Presently, I am writing this newsletter article on technological instruments of the 21 st century. Thus, I am using my laptop computer, a word processing program, and eventually, I shall send it via the Internet to the editor of the United Church Rural Ministry Network. The words will be sent at almost the speed of light, namely 186,000 miles per second through fibre optics. The speed and ease of writing and sending a message today is truly amazing, and a person would think that with all these tools of technology, we would be better at communicating than in any previous century. However, I beg to differ.

Many of my colleagues are aware that I am also a member of the Jane Austen Society of
North America; therefore, I am aware of the differences in communication between the early 19 th century and the 21 st century. Moreover, I am also a regular letter writer, not just by computer, but also by hand in cursive writing. I correspond monthly with numerous people. They all inform me that they sincerely appreciate the time and effort taken to compose, write, and post an actual letter. In addition, they look forward to receiving it in their mailbox. So let us briefly look at the differences in technology.

Firstly, in the 19 th century, writing a letter took time – lots of time. As I mentioned earlier,
today a message is sent at almost the speed of light; however, in Jane Austen’s day, it was a
3 mile per hour world. That time is the average speed that a human being walks. It is true that horses could be somewhat faster, but only the affluent could afford them. In addition, a horse’s pace dictates the length of time it can continue. The faster they go the shorter the distance they can travel.

So, let us examine the technology involved in 19 th century letter writing. A person would
usually have these items around them on a writing desk, or in a writing box or “slope”. (It is
sloped at an angle to let the ink flow better from the quill as you write.) Included in it would be a pen (quill or later nib pen), ink, rag-based paper (not like today’s wood pulp paper), a penknife (for shaping the quill), blotting sand or pounce powder (to dry the ink quickly), sealing wax, and a seal (a stamp with a person’s initials or other symbol to press down on the sealing wax). The letter was usually written on one side of the paper only, as there were no envelopes until later in the 19 th century. Therefore, the paper would be folded in such a way to turn the letter itself into its own envelope. Confused? Check out this link:

The letter would then be delivered through the post. Strangely, the recipient paid for the letter, not the sender. Also, the cost depended on the number of sheets of paper and the distance of the journey. For this reason, you will often find in Jane Austen’s novels that a person asks for permission to correspond to another person, as the recipient bore the cost.

Perhaps, you can now understand the time and effort involved in communication in the
past. Is it any wonder that people kept their mail? It was so treasured that it was often read aloud to the entire family. If the letter was romantic it could be bound with ribbons, or sprayed with perfume. If the letter brought sad news, the colour of the wax seal would be black instead of the usual red. Yes, a letter in the past was a much more significant way of expressing not only knowledge, but emotion as well. It is a far cry from our modern emojis attached to emails and text messages.

In our time, when modern folks are calling for “authenticity”, it becomes obvious that in
communication, you can evince this virtue best by a hand-written letter. So, go dig out that
paper at the back of your desk. Find a ballpoint pen (better still a fountain pen or gel pen), and slow, slow, slow down to take the time and patience to write to people, as if we were still in the 3 mile per hour world. The result will have far more impact on the recipient than an email or text. None of these modern technological means of communication will evoke the smile and anticipation that my pen pals say they experience upon opening their mailbox and seeing an actual, palpable, hand-written letter from me. It certainly builds stronger relationships that my laptop cannot duplicate. Oh yes, Paul, Peter, James, John, etc. also used hand-written letters effectively, and although we don’t have the originals, we still treasure them today.

Rev. W. Martin Dawson (retired and living in Cornwall PEI)