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Elbert Hubbard: An American Original - WNED | PBS

For Educators

Letter Writing... Bridging the Distance


In the past, a relationship like that of Elbert Hubbard and Alice Moore was fueled and maintained through letter-writing. Letters were often the only means of communication that friends and relatives had to keep in touch. In this lesson, students will explore communication through written letters and its evolution to modern day formats. They will examine the use of letters as primary source historical documents and as vehicles for personal expression.


Students will:
  • Articulate how letter-writing has evolved over the years
  • Interpret letters as primary source historical documents
  • Design a letterhead which expresses their individuality
  • Write a personal letter using accepted language conventions

Necessary Materials

  • Internet connectivity
  • Access to a computer graphics program and color printer
  • Examples of letters and letterheads

Relevant National Standards:
NL-ENG.K-12.4, NL-ENG.K-12.5, NL-ENG.K-12.12

Teaching Procedure

  • As a class, brainstorm the many ways in which people communicate their feelings and opinions to each other in today's world.
  • Discuss letter-writing as a past form of communication; read excerpts from historical letters, including this one from Elbert Hubbard to Alice:
    "My dear one, Have hastened a trifle to get to London for My Letters. Here they are - three, postmarked 17th, 21st and 24th. All devoured and poured over, and now I feel I must write to you at once and tell you how much I love you, dear lady. You have no cause to fear in any way."
  • Examine other letters which serve as primary source historical documents (see list of Web sites below).

    Possible discussion questions:
    - Discuss the "fear" to which Elbert might have been referring in his letter to Alice.
    - Discuss some of the ways these letters tell us about the writer/and or historical era in which they were written.
    - Discuss the role of letter-writing in times of war.
    - In the past, relationships were sometimes established and maintained through letter-writing. How has this changed over the years? Why?
    - What are some modern forms of communication that have replaced letter-writing? Besides the actual messages that are conveyed by various forms of communication, how are they different in tone and feeling?
    - Letters are often the main source of documentation that remains about historical and literary figures. With the advent of modern forms of communication that are more ephemeral, how will this change what remains of the human record? What will you leave behind that will speak for you?
    - What are some situations in which you might write a letter?
  • Discuss the use of “letterheads” for business and personal use as expressions of mission or personality. Students will examine examples of letterheads. They will use a computer graphics program to design their own stationery which is a personal expression of their individualism.
  • Discuss/review language conventions and format for personal letter-writing. Students will choose an assignment from the list below. They will use their newly designed personal stationery to write their letter of choice.
    - Write a letter to someone who is currently serving on active duty in the armed forces.
    - Write a letter of gratitude to a friend, a teacher or a member of your family.
    - Write a letter to your future 30-year-old self.
    - Write a letter of introduction to a pen pal in another state or country.
    - Write a letter to a fictional character. Include several questions about the character(s) or plot.


  • Creation of personal letterhead/stationery
  • Completion of personal letter

Extension Activities:

  • Students will use a Vermeer Web site to look at the painting The Love Letter. They will write a paragraph in which they propose an explanation of the scene depicted in the painting. They may include information about how the two "paintings within the painting" help to tell the story of The Love Letter.

Online Resources

War Letters:

Lesson Plan: Civil War Letters. PBS, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010.

Worth Its Weight: Letter Writing. International Reading Association, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010

Battle Lines: Letters from America's Wars. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2010.

U.S. Postal Museum Exhibits and Activities:

The Art of Cards and Letters. Smithsonian, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010.

Other historical letters:

Historic Love Letters. Library Online, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010.

Book Report Alternative:

A Character's Letter to the Editor. International Reading Association, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010.


The Love Letter., n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2010.

Supplemental Material:

Edelman, Bernard, Ed. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.
Grunwald, Lisa, Ed. Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999. Dial, 1999. Print.
Kaywell, Joan F. Dear Author: Letters of Hope. Philomel, 2007. Print.
Newkirk, Pamela, editor. Letters from Black America. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. Print.
Nobleman, Marc Tyler. Extraordinary E-mails, Letters and Resumes. Franklin Watts, 2005. Print.

Suggested Vocabulary: letterhead, pen pal, stationery
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Funding for Elbert Hubbard: An American Original provided by The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation
Elbert Hubbard: An American Original is a production of WNED-TV