Paper Gadgets: The Airletter

Over the last year I’ve become something of a born again letter writer. Various things nudged me: reading collections of literary letters of old, seeing letters in museums, but mostly just missing the pleasure I had from writing letters in the past.

Letters also have a tactile and sensory advantage over the Net experience. More parts of the brain light up when reading handwritten letters, compared to processing typed information on a screen. With letters, I love the extra physicality, the three-dimensional touch of paper, the feel of scratching ink on white (and I do love my choice of pens and pencils). I love seeing the uniqueness of human handwriting: mine as well as other people’s. I also worry that the digital world can dissolve one’s sense of self. This isn’t to disparage the Net in a Luddite way, mind, just to aim for a more varied diet.

If writing letters in 2010 is a romantic gesture, writing airletters verges on the kinky. These cute paper gadgets, also known as ‘aerogrammes’ (and also spelt as ‘aerograms’), are a single sheet of paper which folds up to become its own envelope, with worldwide airmail postage printed on the outside. Designed to be cheap, convenient and private, they were patented by a British postmaster stationed in Iraq in the 30s. From the 40s they became popular worldwide, with pictorial designs to tie in with the latest range of commemorative stamps. For decades, the UK Royal Mail issued a different Christmas airletter every year. I once wrote a fan airletter to the Australian band Even As We Speak. And I don’t think I’d remember it so well if it’d been an email.

But with the mass take-up of email in the late 90s, the appeal of airletters in terms of convenience became redundant. Demand dropped off, and Royal Mail’s last pictorial design was for the Christmas of 2006. In 2010, many countries have stopped issuing them altogether.

When I started writing letters again last year, I was delighted to find UK airletters were still being issued – but only just. They’re not in the Royal Mail’s online shop: you have to either place a phone order (and pay a handling fee), or go into a Post Office and hope for the best. Each time I’ve done that, either they haven’t stocked any, or the counter staff has remarked, ‘It’s been a long time since anyone asked for these…’

Once thin and blue and nicknamed ‘blueys’, UK airletters are now sturdy and white. The standard design is dull, but easily livened up with a little personal customization; I’ve begun to cut out photos from newspapers and Pritt-Stick them into the blank space. More physicality, more a sense of making something, not just typing into the void. At 48p (assuming you bought a discount pack of six), they were still a lot cheaper than sending a postcard or normal letter abroad… until now.

From April 6th, airletters are going up a massive 19p to 67p each, compared with hikes of just 5p for airmail postcards and letters. Clearly Royal Mail sells so few airletters that they need to cover costs. They probably also think the rise won’t draw much of a public outcry. In fact, I suspect this diary entry constitutes the entire amount of umbrage over the increase.

I’ve been buying up packs frantically, in order to beat the price rise. Other people stockpile petrol and tinned food: I stockpile stationery.

After all, who sends airletters in 2010? A smattering of collectors, a few pensioners who won’t touch a computer, and defiant retro-stylists like myself. But I have a letter-loving friend in Australia who writes back, on the pretty pictorial aerogrammes the country still issues, and exchanging Facebook Wall posts with her just doesn’t lift my heart in the same way.

Maybe I’ll be one of the last British airletter senders ever. As long as Royal Mail still make them, and I still have friends abroad, I’ll keep writing them.

An article on aerograms by Prague-based writer Evan Rail.

A blog post: making DIY airletters via Google Maps and online postage

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