“The medium is the message.”
Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
His concept was revolutionary when McLuhan wrote it in 1964: the medium is just as important, maybe even more important, than the contents. The way we communicate is equal to what we communicate. I have found this to be true in compiling the archive of letters to be published this December, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War. Of the hundreds of compiled letters, 70% of them are the original handwritten sheets—ephemera that has been stored and protected for approximately 75 years.
There is nothing equal to the medium of a handwritten letter: the tactile, private, personal connection of holding the sheet; seeing the scrawl of ink or pencil; noting the corrections, marks, and stains across the pages. The physical sheets—the medium—tell stories of their own; the sheets tell of dedicated hours committed to writing, reading, and re-reading; the feeling and styles of the paper hint at the writers’ situations; the scrawl of ink reflects the emotions at the moments of composition.
Among the contents of the letters are details of history and mundane minutiae. Mary manages her baby brother’s love life; Billie guides both his sister’s and brother’s decisions about school, jobs, and marriage; Dad cautiously disburses bad news about family war dead and missing. But the letters—even when you don’t know the correspondents—tell their own tales:
In January 1945, Mary begins writing her brothers on writing paper brightly embossed with red and green roses, likely a Christmas gift in 1944…she runs out of the paper by March.
For 18 months, Mary works at Strawbridge & Clothier—one of the major department stores in the Philadelphia area at the time—and frequently uses S&C stationery when writing from her desk.
Both brothers ask Mary to send writing paper, pens, and stamps…all at a premium at the front. Jack complains “Have been doing quite a bit of writing lately but have to use this darned stationary. It's so thick and rough. Can't wait until the stuff Mary sent arrives.”
Billie, stationed close to the front in New Guinea, writes on a variety of scraps of paper, often scribbling his letters in pencil from fox holes and slit trenches.
Jack, a Marine stationed on the battleship USS Texas, writes on gold-embossed ship’s stationery in a manner his father calls, “beautiful penmanship and very neat.”
Dad writes thick, dense, detailed letters beginning with the date and time when he sits to write, describing breakfasts, dinners, food prices, family updates…committed to staying in touch with his sons.
From the harbor at Leyte, Philippines, from the deck of the USS Texas, Jack pauses his writing as the ink is smudged by rain: “(Excuse rain drops, it just started so I came below).” But his struggles below deck continue, “Boy, it's really hot below here, so the next smudges you'll probably see will be perspiration...”
Similarly, Billie in a letter notes with arrows in two places where he has smudged the ink; “Tears!” he explains in a side-note.
Importantly, even when the contents of the letters are mundane, receiving letters held enormous value to all the correspondents. Over a quarter of the letters mention the excited expectation of waiting for mail call at the front or the mailman back home. Participating in the invasion of Hollandia in New Guinea in the spring of 1944, Billie writes to Dad that he doesn’t know what could be more important than mail to a GI so far from home. In one letter, he writes:
“The mail has been quite meager for over 2 wks. Guess all this action at Hollandia has something to do with it, probably need the space for something more important than mail tho I don't know what it could be, mail means more than food or medicine to keep a guy going.”
The content usually didn’t matter, because the medium—the handwritten letter—was enriched with unique connections that were best appreciated when touched.