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by Alison Orlock, 11/05/99

DC: Historians are concerned that e-mail will completely replace the hand written letter as a form of communication. While letters can be saved and cataloged and re-read and studied endlessly, e-mail is ephemeral. It could last. It might not. E mail tends to be dashed off quickly and the thoughts expressed may be shallow. But does that mean WE are more shallow than our forebears, just because they wrote long letters and we don't?
An upcoming auction suggests that we have more in common than we think. Alison Orlock reports.

Alison: Historians admire the long, slowly written letter ... a window into the deepest mind of the author and a true guide to a person and a time. We have such letters in abundance from people who lived before 1920. Afterwards, other forms of communication began to replace the letter. Telegraph. Telephone. Even the greeting card is considered a letter substitute, according to the Center for Conserving, Calculating and Categorizing Correspondence, and it's co-ordinator, Perry Standish.

Perry: Yes, the greeting card almost made the letter obsolete. You read these bits of correspondence that people sent back and forth to one another in the 19th century ... letters of introduction, newsy letters, diary entries ... and one can easily be amazed by the clarity of thought ... the sense of ease in the actual writing, the way the words flow ... and you think "wow, what a beautiful writer." But you know what? They hated writing, just like we do. They would have used e - mail ... you bet. And some of them were greeting card junkies and would never have written a letter at all if they didn't have to. But it was expected.

Alison: Yes, even in the 19th century the greeting card came with a stigma attached ... the notion that it was a lazy person's means of communication kept many from using off the shelf greeting cards for birthdays, anniversaries and such.

Perry: Lincoln himself loved greeting cards. He would sneak out of the White House on a Sunday afternoon to head down to the apothecary for a few cheap sentiments and a stick of gum.

Alison: Abe Lincoln bought greeting cards? Really?

Perry: In fact, we have an auction coming up ... 200 of his signed greeting cards will go to the highest bidder.

Alison: These are cards the recipients kept for history's sake?

Perry: No, these cards were never sent. Mary Todd Lincoln, for all the rotten things that have been said about her, absolutely hated greeting cards and whenever she saw the president stuff one into an envelope she challenged him on it. "Are you really just going to send a card when a letter would be so much nicer?" She pushed him. Made him write.

Alison: The most significant Lincoln greeting card in the auction is one that the civil war president took to the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg.

Perry: He THOUGHT he had taken it along. It was in his inside jacket pocket ... but Mary had gotten to it first and removed the card ... leaving the envelope in Lincoln's coat. On the ride to Gettysburg, he noticed the card was missing.

Alison: He was going to read a card? Instead of the Gettysburg address?

Perry: Lincoln thought the card said everything. The cover has a line drawing of an elaborate wreath and floral arrangement ... a foil backing sets it off ... it's a very expensive looking card, if a bit overdone.
You open it up and it says this ...

I'm sad for you in this dark time
I want that you should know.
A few kind words. A little rhyme
My sympathy to show.

I hope to dry away your tears.
and make your frown a smile.
To work four score and seven years
T'would still be worth my while.

The world will not remember long
this modest little note.
but what we do ... if right or wrong
still history will show'it.

So now rededicate ourselves
to honor the departed.
Until OUR mem'ry dusts the shelves
The same as when we started.

And then at the bottom it says ... sincerely, A. Lincoln.

Alison: Wow. So ... he figured out while he was on the way to Gettysburg that Mary had taken the card and left only the envelope.

Perry: Which he then used to write down what he remembered of the card ... and that's the reconstruction that we know today as "The Gettysburg Address." Which was widely criticized at the time for being too short ... but now that we've read the original verse, we know he was padding.

Alison: I guess you can't be thoughtful and eloquent all the time.

Perry: 'Course not. This is my favorite ... a birthday card he tried to send US Grant. There's a drawing of a horse on the front ... and it says "I wanted to get you a mighty steed for your birthday, but everyone told me it would bite you." Then you open it up and it says ...
"They say you're nothing but a horse's grass."
Happy Birthday ... go get 'em ... A. Lincoln.

Alison: That's really awful.

Perry: Have I showed you the one with the girl getting out of the bathtub?
I know I've got it here ...

Alison: Perry Standish, curator of a collection of 200 greeting cards signed by Abraham Lincoln, which will be up for auction next week.
This is Alison Orlock.

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