I am sitting in the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans, waiting for my esteemed spouse and enjoying the quiet and the air conditioning. Across from me, partially hidden by a potted palm, is the hotel’s brass letter box, and I wonder if it’s still in service. In a hotel known for the famous authors it has hosted—Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Welty, Hammett & Hellman, Capote—the idea of the letters, possibly even manuscripts, that box has held over the years dazzles the imagination.
Is it because the brass is so highly polished that something as mundane as a mailbox conjures up images of Crane stationery and fountain pens? Or Underwood manual typewriters and penny postage? It looks so elegant it’s hard to imagine it holding Dear John letters, contract disputes, or payments made with checks destined to bounce. Yet those must have passed through it as well.
That box also invites consideration of some of the things that are vanishing from our lives. For example, when exactly did school boards decide to stop teaching cursive? If the coming generation can’t manage writing in cursive, how will they be able to read it? Archivists take note. Will people get the same bang out of trips to the Library of Congress to see the Declaration of Independence if they can’t actually decipher it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love email, Facebook, and paying bills online so I don’t have to use a stamp that costs the equivalent of five 1972 Hershey bars. I’ll have a party when they finally get rid of the fax machine at the office. I’d probably mourn the passing of Macintosh 128K, as well, but frankly it’s really ugly. So perhaps it’s not the shift in communication technology making me wistful. It’s the shift in aesthetics. We need our everyday props to be as beautiful as they were 80 years ago. “Dear Samsung, when you configure the Galaxy 8, can you make the case out of engraved bronze? I hear its melting point is well over 1100 degrees Fahrenheit.”