He’s keeping the handwritten letter alive

John Segal's: Paper habits and keeping the handwritten letter alive
MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/ FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Talk about a paper trail. Every other week, Crane & Co. creative director John Segal rents a car to make a 170-mile drive from Manhattan to the company’s printing presses in North Adams. It’s a decompression commute as he travels from the busy city to the pleasant historic mills along the Housatonic River. His favorite part of the trip — besides stopping for a coffee — is walking onto the factory floor, hearing the hum of the machines and taking in the unmistakable smells of ink. “Anyone that works in the printing industry knows that rush, and it’s amazing. How do these huge, brutal machines press ink into paper with such delicacy and grace?” says Segal. At his New York studio, he creates designs for over 400 different boxed cards, but it’s at the production plant where Segal sees his ideas come to fruition.

For many decades, Crane has used the same engraving, embossing and letterpress techniques on the 100 percent cotton paper that helped make the company famous. Noted letter writers like Paul Revere, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Queen Elizabeth II put pen to paper on classic Crane stationery. Today, celebs such as Tom Brady and Jimmy Fallon still use Crane paper, renowned for its tactile qualities and long, flexible fibers.

Segal is tasked with keeping Crane paper relevant in a digital age. The Globe spoke with him about his own writing habits — he puts at least one or two missives into the mailbox every week — and how he manages to make paper a stylish alternative to e-mail and texting.

“I recall visiting my father’s office as a child and raiding the supply closet — so much to choose from. Rows of pencils, stacks of legal pads and steno notebooks, reams of paper (cotton bond, the good stuff), ‘corrasable’ typing paper, onion skin, carbon paper, Whiteout, reinforcements, mucilage. Early on, I thought I wanted to be an architect but was always drawing intricate pen-and-ink street scenes on the side. I did six illustrations, put them in a manila envelope and dropped them off at the impenetrable, mysterious, and prestigious New Yorker magazine, handing them off through the glass window. To my great surprise, they bought and published a drawing of a diner on Route 1 in Trenton New Jersey, and a bridge in Wiscasset, Maine. It was enough to validate my hope and belief that I could be an illustrator — although I barely knew what an illustrator did back then.

“I went to design school and started contributing designs to greeting card companies as well as writing and illustrating children’s books. I also worked with Crane, and about four years ago came on board full time. Along the way, I become interested in the tradition of fine printing. This was years before there were hipster letterpress printers and the rediscovery of fine writing and good paper. We live in an increasing digital age but there is a minority who are profoundly interested in analog traditions and have a heritage appreciation for great American companies like Crane. For years, Crane packaged 10 cards and 10 envelopes in our iconic blue box, and that was that. But the needs and wants of our customers have changed. While stationery, especially Crane, was bound by the convention of what’s ‘proper’ — now it’s a vehicle to make a statement about yourself.

“Our products are always changing depending on trends, fashion, and where the market is going. Stationery is about human connection — writing a note takes effort, shows thoughtfulness, and stands out. Look at the rising trend of ‘young people’ towards analog choices like journals, vinyl, and Polaroid film. To these digital natives, technology is a given, not a novelty, and using stationery is an agent of self-expression.

“Our designs include stripes, dots, shiny foil, flying pigs icons, sketches of biking brides and grooms, leopard-pattern envelope liners, and colors like aqua, copper, clementine. I’m happy to report, though, that the ‘urban lumberjack’ or New American rustic look (plaids), which infected all corners of retail culture and consciousness, has run its course. It was a bit much, and it’s probably safe to wear a flannel shirt again.

“I continue to attend trade, gift, textile and stationery stores for overall trend spotting and looking to see what sticks. If everything is rose gold, for example, the market is telling you it wants rose gold.

“Today, I still have a great love for ephemera and vintage office and stationery supplies. I own around 30 pens, including my father’s 30-year-old Mont Blanc, a pen that I hope to pass on to one of my kids. And I continue to hand-write notes, of course. My last note was to a friend to congratulate him on the publication of his first novel. I want to keep the writing tradition alive.”

 

To read more, go to the Boston Globe website.

16 Comments
  1. My grandmother made it very clear to me…you always write a thank-you note, and you always use Cranes…years later, I abide by this solemn rule…

    Thank you Grand Ma and thank you Cranes.

    Mark T. Stock

  2. I found you article very interesting. I worked at Crane’s back in the day when everybody wrote letters and thank you cards. I am glad to see you are keeping the tradition alive. I still love to write a nice thank you or congratulatory note. I hope it comes back into fashion.

  3. When I was a senior in high school I got my first personalized stationery from CRANE. We went to Bailey Banks & Biddle in Philadelphia to get my “plates” made for my letterhead, notes & personal cards. From that day forward CRANE has been the only choice for a “proper” note.I love the feel of it, you really CAN tell the difference!

  4. One of my prized possessions is the engraved, 100% cotton, kid skin finish stationery that my husband gifted me about ten years ago. The stationery is exquisite, although most people know the difference in engraved and thermographic, raised letter. I have used Crane stationery products since I was a young deb and have never been dissappointed with your products. When written correspondence is my representative, I depend upon Crane products to make the best impression.

  5. Keep up the good fight!
    At 88 I still send handwritten notes and letters.—–
    My concern is for the future children who will never learn to write.
    Imagine!——perhaps not even their name?
    Thank you.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Mathew Cavanaugh. We need to pass on the love of letter writing to the next generation. Providing meaningful experiences for children to engage in this meaningful work is not only rewarding for the writer, but also rewarding for the recipient. My own collection of letters I have received over time are treasues! Children need to see adults engage in such a mode of communication if they are going to immulate such love.

  7. I agree that written correspondence is unfortunately dwindling, being replaced by the “easy way out” of email or, God forbid, texting. Not more than two weeks go by that I don’t send a letter to one or more of my elected officials with some good advice on what to do with their votes in Congress. I believe a written letter vs an email carries more weight than emails and goes farther to influence the recipients thinking and voting on important legislation.

  8. I’ve been exchanging notes with a nonagenarian this summer. What a pleasure it has been! As a genealogist I appreciate the letters I’ve found written by ancestors. What a pity the art of written communication is dying.

  9. I am so happy to know someone besides me appreciates hand written letters. I have had the most difficult time trying to find any place that even has personalize letter sized stationary! Mostly following the question wondering why I don’t just TEXT my communication, I am then shown a variety of NOTE CARDS.

    I have letters I have saved for over 40 years, including one my Uncle sent from Viet Nam the day before he and his platoon were all killed in action. So, NO a text or even a note card will not do. So, thank you John Segal for sharing my sentiments about the value of a hand written letter…….a true art form.

  10. Fabulous!!! I completely agree!! Your Stationary is the best ! I love sending handwritten Notes, to me, it the classy and nice! Thanks! Mira

  11. To me a short handwritten note is worth a zillion digital words.
    On fine paper, it is priceless.

    Isabel Maynard

  12. Mr Segal, if you see rose gold and recognize that rose gold is called for in the upcoming stationery offerings, then why is there still no pink letter paper? Bordered message cards are poor excuses for stationery. Who has time and money to waste on note cards? Real letter paper is called for, and in quantity. Correspondence begins at 4 pages, and stationery should come in tonnes.
    Young people actually notice real trends. Last year’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the uptick in fountain pen sales should be a signal that there is a market for quality paper. Literacy can cling to the cliff for another generation.

    I did hear from a senator’s aide that 10 letters can change a vote. Do not underestimate the power of the pen (and paper).

  13. Thank goodness for you and your love for all things stationery. I share your love for it all as well. fountain Pens…sooo many. I still have my 30ish year old Mont Blancs. Beautiful stationery…shelves of it . Always sending handwritten notes on creamy , lucious, thick stock.
    I create watercolor greeting cards that are sold around the world. A passion I get paid to do. The best!!!!!!!
    Don’t let those machines ever go silent!!!!!
    🖋

  14. Recipients love to receive a hand written note on good stationery; it makes them feel special. There is no doubt Cranes is the finest. You can feel the difference. When I receive a note from someone on Cranes stationery, I know they really care. I love my engraved informal note cards.
    To those who create this fine stationery, please keep up your great work. You make the world a more beautiful place, and are truly appreciated. Thank you.

  15. I, too, want to keep the writing tradition alive. When you design, please think of us in the Midwest; we have water, but it’s not salty. We love the nautical style here in the Great Lakes but starfish and sea turtles aren’t iconic to us. We receive the trends a bit after the coasts but we hold on longer! Thanks for your beautiful work.

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