Forget Me Not Day: The History of Letter Writing

Elephantine Papyrus 207 BC
Letter writing dates back at least 2,000 years.

On November 10, you might celebrate Forget Me Not Day, a day that encourages people to reach out to get in touch with friends and family. When you write notes to send to your friends, do you ever wonder what writing was like long ago?

The writing in the photo above is a letter that was written in the second half of the second century in Alexandria, Egypt. But some historians believe that writing started thousands of years before this. Early cave paintings show us that people wanted to communicate ideas. But people could speak long before they could write.

People wrote numbers before they wrote letters. They used numbers, for example, to track their property and count their belongings. Next, people used images to send messages with writing called pictograms. Pictograms were great for simple messages, but they were not uniform or easy to use. It was hard to communicate with someone in pictographs, because the messages could not be too detailed.

Later, people used symbols to represent sounds rather than entire words or ideas. Traveling merchants used the first letters to create records of their travels and sales. The first alphabet used in this way had only consonants. Later alphabets had symbols for both consonants and vowels.

While the earliest letters were carved into stone tablets, the development of paper and ink made writing much more efficient. Papyrus was an early form of paper used as a writing surface. It was made from a plant called the papyrus plant, which grew along the Nile River in Egypt. Today, we can still make paper from plants—trees! But if you are writing a message to a friend, you might use the internet or texting instead of paper. 

What Do You Think? How is writing today different from writing long ago? How do you think it might change in the future?

Photo Credit: World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo