A direct, written message that is usually sent some distance from one person to another, or even to a group of persons or an organization, is called a letter.
An old term for letter is “epistle,” from the Greek word epistolē, meaning “message.”
In the course of history, letter writing has also developed into a popular literary prose form, a type of biographical or autobiographical literature, intended in some cases for reading by the general public
The main purposes of letters were to send information, news and greetings. For some, 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.
Letters have been playing a crucial part in history for thousands of years.
The first ever handwritten letter was thought to have been sent by the Persian Queen Atossa in around 500 BC, according to the ancient historian Hellanicus. Their popularity as a way of sending messages grew as more people became literate.
Letter writing began in the ancient world as soon as rulers of nations, separated by some distance, found the need to communicate with each other. It is known, for instance, from a remarkable collection of documents found in 1887 at El Amarna, Egypt, that many rulers in the ancient Middle East kept up a lively correspondence with the pharaohs.
Among the ancients the Roman consul Cicero was a prolific writer of letters, especially to his friend Atticus.
In the Bible most of the books in the New Testament are epistles, letters from St. Paul and other Christian leaders to various congregations and individuals.
In the ancient world letters might be written on 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. More recently, letters have mainly been written on paper: handwritten and more recently typed.
Historians of the medieval period often study family letter collections, which gather the personal and business correspondence of a group of related people and shed light on their daily life. The Paston Letters (1425 – 1520 ) are widely study for insight into life in Britain during the Wars of the Roses. Other major medieval family letter collections include the Stonor Letters (1420 – 1483), Plumpton Letters (1416 – 1552), and Cely Letters (1472-1488).
By the 18th century, letter writing was so commonplace that one of the first prose narratives to be considered a novel, Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” was composed entirely of letters of a daughter to her parents, and the epistolary method lent that novel what realism it possessed.
During the 18th century, called the “Great Age of Letter Writing,” the epistolary novel became a hugely popular genre and came from the format of letters. The novel also first debuted in the 17th century with Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. Letter writers used this to communicate and explore their identity and daily life at the time. As a medium of writing that lies ambiguously between the public and private worlds, letters provide an appealing peek into other people’s thoughts, feelings, and lives.
Throughout history many well-known persons have written letters that, although originally intended as private correspondence, have been collected and published. Such collections are far too numerous to list, but in the modern period the letters of such famous persons as William Cowper, Charles Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Dean Howells, Ernest Hemingway, Groucho Marx, Sigmund Freud, Woodrow Wilson, George Eliot, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, and D.H. Lawrence have proved rich sources of information on the persons themselves and on the world as they saw it. In the matter of published letters, it should be noted that a letter as a document becomes the property of the recipient; but the contents remain the property of the sender, who must consent to any publication.
Cryptography (secret writing) sometimes played a role in letters in centuries past, as correspondents would use previously agreed code to try to shield the plaintext from the comprehension of prying eyes during the letter’s transit. This could be done in business letters to lessen spying by competitors on prices and methods and in personal letters to try to evade postal censorship (either of wartime censors or of peacetime authoritarian censors) or the gossip of townsfolk.
Despite email’s widespread use, letters are still popular, particularly in business and for official communications. At the same time, many “letters” are sent in electronic form.