Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century

By David A. Gerber | Go to book overview

Introduction
Letters and Immigrants

The Abiding Significance of Personal Letters

Immigrants before the era of instant electronic communication were compelled to write letters to family and friends in their homelands.1 The great age of European mass international migrations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also an era of rapidly proliferating formal primary education and rising popular literacy. Across the lines of social class and region, growing numbers of European immigrants, like those leaving Britain for Canada and the United States who form the basis for this work, possessed some literacy skills. Some wrote with considerable technical facility, but most had to strain against significant limitations in their use of written language. Among the many challenges to individual improvement posed by immigration, distance and separation proved a powerful stimulus to the improvement of self-expression. Complementing that challenge was the mastery of the rules of postal systems—the first impersonal, modern bureaucracy that most nineteenthcentury immigrants would encounter in their lifetimes.

Even today, when immigrants have available to them a number of forms of convenient, instantaneous electronic communication—video phones, international long distance telephone service, fax, and e-mail— many prefer to write personal letters in the old-fashioned way when communicating to family and friends.2 One reason, of course, is that the mails continue to be inexpensive. One does not have to own a computer or a fax machine, or buy time on-line at an Internet café to write a letter and to post it for a nominal cost. The technology of the personal letter remains inexpensive and easily accessible, even more so now than in the past, when pen nibs, paper, and ink were sometimes scarce, and were luxuries for people with limited means.

But it is not solely the low costs, reliability, and convenience of the

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