One of my cousins up north has recently been transcribing some letters written by my great-grandfather, and some other members of the family. These letters all fall in the period of the early 20th Century.
It's really been revealing. Not only in lost family history, and not only in making these relatives, who I never met, and who had passed on long before my time, very real and human, but also in pointing out the extent to which corresopndence has become a lost art. It's really been amazing.
Public letter writer, Mexico. The equivalent of the internet cafe in its day.
Generally, people in the past simply wrote a lot more than they do now. And the time, effort, and thought that went into hand written letters is really amazing. These letters, not more than four pages or so, are beautifully written. But this certainly wasn't unique to them. My mother was a great correspondent, and constantly was writing letters. At some point in time, so long ago that I don't know when it was, she went from handwriting letters to typing them, and indeed I recently ran across a typed journal that she was doing while in college, so obviously she went to typing quite early. She went from the typewriter to the computer, and then in her later years back to handwriting, but all along she wrote letters constantly.
My father wrote to fewer people, but he too wrote a fair amount. When I was a college student I always looked forward to the handwritten letters from my father. I wrote letters in that time frame as well. After my father died, I found a handwritten and very interesting letter his father had written him when he was first in college. Again, my father's letters, and his father's letter, were very well written.
Well written letters even extended to commercial life, at one time. For example, I've seen letters written by lawyers in cases, who were adversaries in their representation, that were not only well written, but they were even amusing and a bit chatty. Clearly the correspondents, even though working at the time, took the time to make their letters interesting and amusing. Something that still happens a bit, as lot of commercial correspondence continues on (although email has made its intrusion here as well), but not to that same extent as it once did.
Now, it seems, letter writing is all but dead, replaced by the much more abbreviated form of modern correspondence, the email. Emails just are the same. I'm not sure why, but perhaps its because of their instantaneous nature. You get them immediately upon their being sent, which means that you can reply instantly, or nearly so. This was not true, of course, of mailed correspondence, which took days to arrive, and to which no immediate reply was expected. So, emails are shorter, terser, etc.
Similar to this, I suppose, is the diary or journal. I've known a few people who kept diaries, but I never have. They were once quite common, and it's surprising to realize how many well known people kept diaries in the past. Winston Churchill, for example, made diary entries darned near every day of his adult life, it seems. Some books by people great and small have simply been published diaries, with I suppose the most famous being The Diary of Anne Frank. I suspect that diaries have passed by the wayside, like mailed correspondence. Indeed, if anyone who happens to read this entry keeps a diary, I'd be curious in their noting that in the comments.
I've seen it claimed that the diary, like the written letter, has been replaced by an electronic equivalent, that being the blog and/or the "tweet". Well, this is a blog, but it isn't a diary, and because these are open to the world, they aren't at all the same as a diary. People simply don't write the same thing they might if writing only for themselves, or if figuring that anyone who might read the entries will not do so for years, or even decades, after they were written. Tweets are even less analogous as they are, in my opinion, semi-bizarre streams of consciousness. I can't even begin to fathom why people actually write them.
Anyhow, love or hate the electronic era, one thing that has been a casualty of it has been the written letter, and I suspect that the daily diary entry is mortally wounded if not already dead. Its a shame too, as so many people, in all stations of life, wrote so well and insightfully, and now that is lost.