December 7 is National Letter Writing Day

That gives me a wonderful excuse to write about my favorite tool for connecting with others: the personal, handwritten letter or note. I've collected so many stories about people who were touched, encouraged, comforted or inspired by a personal letter at just the right time in their life. Today, though, I want to share some letters that changed history…in real or quirky ways.

1. Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

According to the Joe Janes's “Documents that Changed the World” podcast episode “Einstein's Letter to FDR, 1929,” Einstein was prevailed upon, by several leading physicists, to write to FDR to warn him that Germany's Third Reich was conducting research they felt constituted a nuclear threat. Atomic energy had only recently been discovered, and it is likely that the information in this letter, backed by Einstein's reputation and prestige, influenced the subsequent focus on America's development of an atomic weapon.

2. Geoffrey Boothroyd to Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series

Book cover image by Jason of Beverley Hills

Ian Fleming spent six years as a Naval intelligence officer, but somehow he had never managed to learn much about guns. After the 1956 release of Diamonds are Forever, one fan wrote wrote a letter taking him to task for having Fleming's macho character use a gun that a real man would never have used. Geoffrey Boothroyd, an engineering analyst and amateur firearms expert, wrote Fleming to complain about Bond's tiny firearm: “I dislike a man who comes in contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady's gun, and not a really nice lady at that.”

Fleming was enormously grateful for the advice and immediately changed Bond's weapon of choice to his signature Walther PPK. He wrote back to Boothroyd to express his appreciation:

I really am most grateful for your splendid letter of May 23rd.

You have entirely convinced me and I propose, perhaps not in the next volume of James Bond's memoirs but, in the subsequent one, to change his weapons in accordance with your instructions.

Since I am not in the habit of stealing another man's expertise, I shall ask you in due course to accept remuneration for your most valuable technical aid.

According to blogger Miss Cellania, Boothroyd continued to advise Fleming for many years but refused compensation. The author found a way to pay tribute to this fan, however. “In Dr. No, Fleming debuted a new character -Bond's brilliant armorer and gadgeteer Major Boothroyd, a.k.a. ‘Q.'”

3. Grace Bedell, age 11, to President Abraham Lincoln

excerpt child's letter to President Lincoln

TRANSCRIPT – very little punctuation and many errors:
Westfield Chataque Co
Oct. 15 1860
Hon A B Lincoln
Dear Sir

My father has just [come] home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. [Hannibal] Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you won’t think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try and get everyone one to vote for you that I can. I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty. I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter dir[e]ct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York

I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye

Grace Bedell

Lincoln wrote back to Grace just four days later. We will never know whether Grace’s letter was the deciding factor or not, but within a few months, Lincoln had grown a beard and was, according to the National Museum of American History, the first president of the United States to wear whiskers while serving as president. It became his signature look.

Will your letter change history?

Please write someone a letter on December 7 (or any other time the mood strikes you). Help historians by writing about your life, your world, and your thoughts. Help someone lonely by letting them know you're thinking of them. Help someone who's going through a tough time with encouraging words. Help a young person by praising them for a job well done.

Your letter may not change history, but never underestimate your ability to influence a person or a situation with a single letter.

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls;
For, thus friends absent speak.

John Donne in a verse letter to Sir Henry Woto
written before April 1598

Photo credit: USA postage stamp collection by Tony Baggett via Dollar Photo Club

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