• Linda van Ekelenburg

The Letters Themselves: Putting Pen to Paper

Updated: May 15, 2019


In the 1940s, the instantaneous sharing of a photo of one’s lunch at XYZ restaurant would have seemed peculiar at best. Today’s texting, tweeting, email, and Instant Messaging have largely overtaken the place letter writing once held in the realm of interpersonal communication. Earlier inroads had been made by the telegraph and then the telephone. Landlines became affordable for most American households after World War II. Without them, during the war, letter writing was the channel connecting military personnel and their people back home. Beyond the information they contained, the actual letters were cultural artifacts in their own right.

There was an etiquette for personal correspondence. Business letters were typed, but handwriting was preferred for personal letters, unless the recipient was a close friend. Printing instead of longhand was only for young children. In That Damned Torpedo, some of Mother Waldeck’s letters were typed. It had been customary to use only one side of the sheet of paper, which was often personalized stationery with matching personalized envelopes, but wartime economies were such that one wrote on both sides of the page, and left very narrow margins all the way around.

Paper shortages due to the war effort and the need to limit the weight of the letter made this so. Soldiers and sailors and their families and sweethearts at home wrote so many letters that their transit created problems for the military. Cargo space for the bags and bags of mail was sorely needed for war supplies. One solution was airmail stationery, a lightweight, thin, nearly translucent paper often called onionskin.

Airmail paper posed its own problem. Personal letters should not be written in pencil. (In one letter (March 4, 1944) Blanche apologizes to Dirk for writing in pencil, because she has left her pen at the office.) A commercially viable mass-produced ballpoint pen would not be introduced in the United States until after the end of the war. Fountain pens were the rule, but the ink flow would sometimes seep through the paper, making the reverse side hard to read. Furthermore, the fountain pen had to be refilled from a bottle of ink from time to time. An ink blotter was a necessary accessory.

Only so many letters in a row can stand on the merits of repeated assurances of undying affection. “I love you, I love you, I miss you, I miss you,” soon can become the cotton candy of an epistolary diet. It is good to provide some meat and potatoes from time to time. And what is left out is often as telling about a person as what is included.

For example, on September 17, 1944, a hurricane with winds gusting at 140 miles per hour struck New Jersey, Long Island, and other points along the eastern seaboard, making railways impassable, destroying buildings, knocking out power for over a week, sinking two Coast Guard ships and one Navy destroyer, beaching a seventy-five foot schooner, and claiming at least twenty-seven lives. Yet Mr. and Mrs. Waldeck did not mention this calamity in their letters.

Similarly, Blanche did not tell her parents about the massive naval magazine explosion at Port Chicago, right across the San Francisco Bay, which occurred on July 17, 1944. Mother Waldeck even wrote of having expected Blanche to write about it.

So, writing a letter entailed deciding 1) typewriter, cursive, or printing, 2) plain paper, onionskin, or personalized stationery, and 3) typing, pencil, or pen. Make sure you have enough ink, and keep the letter under one ounce. Aim to include something newsworthy. Keep the dictionary nearby, as well.

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