The Pace of Modern Life and the Loss of Letter Writing Circa 1900

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This week, the author posted some wonderful quotes about the problems with the pace of modern life including the loss of letter-writing, the inability to read, and the increase in anxiety – all from over 100 years ago.

The art of letter-writing is fast dying out. When a letter cost nine pence, it seemed but fair to try to make it worth nine pence … Now, however, we think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence.We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.

The Sunday Magazine

It is, unfortunately, one of the chief characteristics of modern business to be always in a hurry. In olden times it was different.

The Medical Record

With the advent of cheap newspapers and superior means of locomotion… The dreamy quiet old days are over… For men now live think and work at express speed. They have their Mercury or Post laid on their breakfast table in the early morning, and if they are too hurried to snatch from it the news during that meal, they carry it off, to be sulkily read as they travel … leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them… The hurry and bustle of modern life … lacks the quiet and repose of the period when our forefathers, the day’s work done, took their ease…

William Smith, Morley: Ancient and Modern

Conversation is said to be a lost art … Good talk resupposes leisure, both for preparation and enjoyment. The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying.

Frank Leslie’s popular Monthly, Volume 29

Intellectual laziness and the hurry of the age have produced a craving for literary nips. The torpid brain … has grown too weak for sustained thought.
There never was an age in which so many people were able to write badly.

Israel Zangwill, The Bachelors’ Club

The art of pure line engraving is dying out. We live at too fast a rate to allow for the preparation of such plates as our fathers appreciated. If a picture catches the public fancy, the public must have an etched or a photogravured copy of it within a month or two of its appearance, the days when engravers were wont to spend two or three years over a single plate are for ever gone.

Journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Volume 1

So much is exhibited to the eye that nothing is left to the imagination. It sometimes seems almost possible that the modern world might be choked by its own riches, and human faculty dwindle away amid the million inventions that have been introduced to render its exercise unnecessary.
The articles in the Quarterlies extend to thirty or more pages, but thirty pages is now too much so we witness a further condensing process and, we have the Fortnightly and the Contemporary which reduce thirty pages to fifteen pages so that you may read a larger number of articles in a shorter time and in a shorter form. As if this last condensing process were not enough the condensed articles of these periodicals are further condensed by the daily papers, which will give you a summary of the summary of all that has been written about everything.
Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works.
Ephemeral literature is driving out the great classics of the present and the past … hurried reading can never be good reading.

G. J. Goschen, First Annual Address to the Students, Toynbee Hall. London

The existence of mental and nervous degeneration among a growing class of people, especially in large cities, is an obvious phenomenon … the mania for stimulants … diseases of the mind are almost as numerous as the diseases of the body… This intellectual condition is characterized by a brain incapable of normal working … in a large measure due to the hurry and excitement of modern life, with its facilities for rapid locomotion and almost instantaneous communication between remote points of the globe

The Churchman, Volume 71

The cause of the … increase in nervous disease is increased demand made by the conditions of modern life upon the brain. Everything is done in a hurry. We talk across a continent, telegraph across an ocean, take a trip to Chicago for an hour’s talk… We take even our pleasures sadly and make a task of our play … what wonder if the pressure is almost more than our nerves can bear.

G. Shrady (from P.C. Knapp)
“Are nervous diseases increasing?” Medical Record


To take sufficient time for our meals seems frequently impossible on account of the demands on our time made by our business… We act on the apparent belief that all of our business is so pressing that we must jump on the quickest car home, eat our dinner in the most hurried way, make the closest connection for a car returning …

Louis John Rettger. Studies in Advanced Physiology

In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favour of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk?
I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten. We live in days of water trips and land trips, excursions by sea, road and rail-bicycles and tricycles, tram cars and motor cars …. but in my humble opinion, good honest walking exercise for health beats all other kinds of locomotion into a cocked hat.

T. Thatcher, “A plea for a long walk”,
The Publishers Circular

The art of conversation is almost a lost one. People talk as they ride bicycles–at a rush–without pausing to consider their surroundings … what has been generally understood as cultured society is rapidly deteriorating into baseness and voluntary ignorance. The profession of letters is so little understood, and so far from being seriously appreciated, that … Newspapers are full, not of thoughtful honestly expressed public opinion on the affairs of the nation, but of vapid personalities interesting to none save gossips and busy bodies.

Marie Corelli,
Free opinions, freely expressed


Read the complete transcript here

Pace of Modern Life

Read the complete transcript here

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

8 thoughts on “The Pace of Modern Life and the Loss of Letter Writing Circa 1900”

  1. John, Of course these are funny, especially because they came so long before the recent burst of info-crush on us and by us. But doesn’t your post prove the opposite — that in every age there are those who can’t adjust to the incoming communication pace and method, and so yearn for ‘the good old days”? We have them today; they had them a century ago. Since communication is never static, it is always changing and evolving. This is what rejuvenating communication.

    So let’s not lament the passing of styles. Make today’s styles communicate well! That’s always the challenge we must rise to.

    1. Dave,
      So good to hear from you. It’s been too long!

      What do you mean by, “proves the opposite”? I intentionally didn’t offer an opinion or attempt an interpretation of these since I think it’s possible to take them in a number of directions depending on the point you want to make :)

  2. The Watchman one dated 1908 beginning with: “Plays in theaters…” could be a massive case of quoting out of context. We don’t know if the author is saying the change has been good or bad.

  3. In 2 Timothy 3 it talks about how terrible society is in the last days. Some say that time is now. In the 1800’s I bet some would say it was happening then. Interesting how history repeats.

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