Two years ago I gave my now-fiancé an absurdly lengthy love letter that filled every page of a small notebook for Christmas.
Yes, it’s obnoxious and you’re allowed to hate me for it, but consider that at the time I was an under-employed Millennial and had little with which to work.
It took me weeks to finish it, writing a little each day, and when I finally gave it to him he was overcome with emotion. He was deeply touched by the gesture and to this day it remains his most cherished gift from me – more than the Spurs tickets, the fancy cufflinks, or the whisky tasting course. It’s as if the handwritten word has become so obsolete that it holds unending and unparalleled value in its rarity.
Statistically I may be a disillusioned member of Generation Y, but I still comprehend the significance of handwritten notes, thank yous, and even love letters.
But being thoughtful just takes so much time these days — it’s as if being considerate has become old-fashioned. Can you honestly remember when the last time you had dinner or drinks with a friend and neither of you used your cell phone? No texting, no email, no live-tweeting your dining experience with overly descriptive hashtags?
Maybe you and your friends aren’t this techno-centric, but I can’t easily recall a recent outing devoid of instant communication. I can’t blame innovation for this effect on the new social norm, but I can wonder what has happened to meaningful messaging and the art of handwritten correspondence.
What happened to the careful contemplation of words and the gravity of their intent? What happened to an era in which our grandparents and great-grandparents would have creatively sustained years-long relationships using simple pen and ink?
I truly enjoy having a job that serves as the impetus for these types of inquiries. I now hang my hat at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, a time capsule that transports me each day to a time and place that would’ve been familiar to my great-grandparents and beyond.
Though there aren’t any love letters to be found at the Museum, there is an object that was once the apex of modern communication—a large, red Wells Fargo stagecoach reproduction. It might not sound like much; in fact it isn’t outfitted with a USB dock or Bluetooth capabilities, but it represents a mid-19th century equivalent of a luxury Italian sports car.
When I see the stagecoach I can imagine it as it once would’ve been—rumbling across a dusty trail, full of nine (yes, nine!) eager and likely fatigued passengers, carrying important letters and messages back and forth across the Western Frontier. What would those letters have read?
“Checking in at The Haberdashery! #buylocal #neverseensomanyhats #pocketsquaresFTW” –probably not.
Rather these documents would have been important military dispatches, urgent communiqués from those who went west in search of riches and opportunity, perhaps even the occasional heartfelt letter for a loved one.
When the stagecoach arrived on the scene it took a letter 30 days to travel the Southern route from Texas to California, going five to 12 mph and stopping every 12 miles to change horses. Just imagine all the Groupons, Expedia deals, and unnecessary forwarded mail from your mom that would likely clutter your inbox over the course of 30 days.
The first stage line in the West ran from our very own San Antonio to San Diego. Over some stretches of land mules were used to pull the coaches, which earned the line the nickname “The Jackass Mail.” Then the Pony Express came along and with its wiry riders galloping at intervals for 24-hours a day, the delivery time for a letter went down to 10 days — the time was cut in half. That must have been akin to upgrading from dial-up to high-speed DSL internet. Soon thereafter the telegraph was invented, yet the Pony Express has since become an icon of the American West, an embodiment of American individualism and tenacity.
The physical boundary that defines the American West can vary by source, but the City of San Antonio lays along the 90th Meridian, physically where the Western Hemisphere begins—one might say this is where the West begins. We aren’t only a “City on the Rise,” we’re a city on the verge – at a unique intersection of art, culture and history that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
When Riley Gardner wrote about needing the Old San Antonio to help a future San Antonio truly thrive, I couldn’t help but think of the Briscoe Museum. There are many creative ways that our collection that can truly enrich an increasingly collaborative and culturally vibrant San Antonio.
While thinking about modern communication, human connection, and the upcoming holidays, I talked with my pal Gus Sullivan at San Antonio B-cycle to see if the local bike share program would be interested in collaborating on a community project called Pony Express Love Letters that literally spreads the love across San Antonio’s center city.
Between Feb. 4-11 during normal Briscoe Museum hours anyone and everyone is welcome to stop by and craft a personal love letter, fill in a Valentine’s Mad Lib, and be inspired by books of poetry. With the help of our friends at B-cycle, all the letters and notes we collect will be delivered to your loved one by bicycle—like a modern day Pony Express. Please keep in mind that all love letters MUST include a complete address located within the geographical boundaries defined by B-cycle.
We could also use volunteers to make this project a success. If you would like to help as a Pony Express Rider and delivery letters by bike, please visit the SA2020 volunteer page.
Gardner said our biggest asset is “what (we) can embrace from the past that helps create the future.” In the spirit of my creative interpretation of that message, and the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I invite San Antonians to reclaim a seemingly long-forgotten tradition.
Lay down your smart phones, give your thumbs a rest and remind yourself what it feels like to hold a pen to paper for the purpose of human affection. Because there’s just something about receiving a love letter that e-mail will never be able to fully convey, no matter how many emoticons you attach.
Lauren Shultz is an arts administrator who is passionate about the art experience and driven by the need to adapt the accessibility of the arts in the 21st century. She obtained undergraduate degrees in Art History and Italian from UT Austin before earning her M.A. in International Arts Administration in Torino, Italy. She is a recent Austin transplant proudly residing in San Antonio and working at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.