The Gift of a Handwritten Note

Whether expressing gratitude, sympathy, love, or a quick hello, putting thoughts down on paper conveys a warmth that digital messages can never replicate.
Writing letter to a friend. Selective focus and shallow depth of field.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write…Since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…”—letter from Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett, postmarked January 10, 1845

Thus begins a prolific correspondence between two 19th-century English poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, who will go on to exchange an astonishing 573 letters over the course of 20 months, if you care to count. Now, imagine those initial sentiments originating from a Gmail address rather than Browning’s physical one in Surrey, or expressed within a text peppered with heart emojis and LOLs, as they might be today. Would their relationship still have progressed from a mutual admiration society to secret courtship to eventual marriage? Perhaps. But it’s hard to envision that by Browning merely sliding into Barrett’s Instagram DMs he could inspire her to craft the sonnet, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…,” and certainly not only our admiration for their iconic romance, but also our esteem for their literary legacies might be poorer for it.

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Unfortunately, in this electronic era, eloquent and elegantly scripted love letters have largely gone the way of 19th-century poets. And furthermore, why would one bother with handwritten notes of any kind? Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning have the answer in their 2022 update of their great-great grandmother’s book, Emily Post’s Etiquette, that was first published in 1922. “They take time, cost money, and require effort. But that is exactly why they are special,” they say. “No matter how hard technology tries to replace them, handwritten letters, notes, and postcards delivered by mail are here to stay…to see someone’s handwriting and know they took the time to sit down and write out this note means something to the recipient.”

Handwritten note with quote from Maya Angelou on Elaine Griffin's personal stationeryIndeed, whenever we spot a hand-addressed envelope peeking out amid the barrage of bills and junk in our mailboxes, our hearts tend to skip a beat or two faster with anticipation. And in sending a thank-you note, expression of sympathy, or birthday greeting to a far-flung friend, we know we’re spreading a spirit of gratitude, goodwill, or moment of joy that is a much-needed gift in our chaotic, modern world.

Whether our own words have the resonance of pure poetry ultimately makes no difference—it is, as often said, the thought that counts, and the act of putting pen to paper will always be a worthwhile endeavor. To help us count the ways, we’ve asked designers known for both graciousness and style for their perspectives on personal correspondence, and we’ve also taken notes from experts who wrote the books on how to mind our Ps and Qs when it comes to the art of letters.

Elaine Griffin portraitElaine Griffin
Interior designer, Brunswick, GA

On a personal note: Compared to the ease of sending an email, the effort required to write and send a handwritten note can seem equivalent to a day of hard labor. But that’s what makes them meaningful—a beautiful, hand-stamped, handwritten envelope is like sunshine in your mailbox.

How she started: My mother furnished me with Snoopy stationery in elementary school. I graduated to custom-printed in high school. My college roommates-to-be at Yale nicknamed me “Miss Elaine” after I sent them Looking forward to meeting y’all notes on said stationery as soon as dorm assignments went out. One regret of my short-lived marriage is I never got to finish the box of engraved Crane note cards I ordered with my “Mrs. Man Person” name. (I did manage to finish the envelopes, though.)

Elaine’s paper preference: I’m a confirmed flat-card-with-a-contrast-border responder. Believe it or not, it helps me appear to be more verbose than I actually am. Stationery should reflect its sender’s personality, so for me, bolder is better, such as bright orange lettering and border on ivory or pearl-gray card stock. Mrs. John L. Strong, Crane, and Smythson are among my faves.

Write it pretty: You can bet that many a Southern Mama still teaches their ladies-in-training cursive writing, no matter how long ago the art was abandoned in school.

Thank you very (very) much: Thank-you note language is perhaps the last bastion of socially sanctioned effusiveness—in my opinion, the more flowery the better.

Style secret: I cut the perforated edges off stamps for social correspondence. Babe Paley was known to have her social secretary do the same.

Charlotte Moss portraitCharlotte Moss
Interior designer, New York

On a personal note: There’s nothing like the sound of a fountain pen on paper.

How she started: I can’t remember the first note I wrote, but as a child I do recall being aware of when to say thank you for a gift, a kind gesture, or any time someone did something for me, and notes were a part of that. I will say today it’s a lost art. Given a choice, especially with children, the most important thing is that they DO it. It’s absolutely inexcusable if they don’t. As they’re glued to their devices all the time, they often rely on email . But everyone can make the time to write a handwritten note—you make the time by establishing priorities.
The handwritten note is still relevant because you have to think before you write; otherwise you’ll be starting over on a new piece of potentially expensive stationery.  Writing slows you down and makes you craft your words in a more measured manner.

When and why: It’s a personal thing, but certain correspondence such as condolence notes should ONLY be handwritten—and for me, thank-you notes too.

Charlotte’s paper preference: I love my blue Smythson stationery. I buy postcards from museums all around the world and will often jot off a quick note on them or use them as a gift enclosure. I admit to being “paper obsessed.” I never pass a stationery shop without going in.

Preserving sentiments: I’ve been blessed during the course of my career to have people who have written me beautiful notes to thank me for something I inspired them to do through a lecture, or to congratulate me on an achievement or a new book. They’re from everywhere on all types of paper and stationery, and in my eyes they’re all special because someone took the time with their expression and choice of words. I save them in hand-bound boxes with “Nice Letters” embossed on leather, crafted by Vogel Bindery.

Where she writes: In the city, at my desk in the study, in the country, and on the terrace or screened porch, weather permitting. All places I am relaxed and can think.

Young Huh portrait
Photo by Manuel Ruez

Young Huh
Interior designer, New York

On a personal note: I love when people have lovely handwriting and keep margins. Unfortunately I am not that person. I may not have the neatest script, but what you’ll get is true feeling and my personality!

How she started: When I was a little girl, there was no texting. If we wanted to keep in touch with friends from camp or those who moved away, the only option was to write. We spent a lot of time choosing stationery, stickers, and decorating our letters to each other. I still have some of those childhood correspondences, and they are so sweet and touching.

Why a handwritten note still resonates: A text or email is done the moment you read it, but a note can sit on your desk or be pinned to a bulletin board to be read and reread.  You savor the words written, and somehow the sentiments are absorbed so much more deeply.

Young’s paper preference: For business, I use a flat correspondence card with my company name on top. A friend sent me fold-over cards with my name painted in many different ways on the front. I cherish them.

The art of the letter: I’ve received notes that have artwork on the back that the writer has painted or drawn. Those are definite keepers.