Today is National Pen Pal Day.
I didn’t have a pen pal as a child, but years ago, while researching a book on lighthouses, I began a long correspondence with a lighthouse keeper. Though I had a computer and easy access to email by then, we kept in touch the old-fashioned way – with letters sent by mail. That process – writing and mailing the letters and then eagerly waiting for her to reply – took me back to childhood and pre-computer days when we relied on physical letters instead of emails and texts to keep in touch with out-of-town friends and family. A bit like how it was when pen pals first began.
Pen pals have been around for a long time. They began during the 1930s when a society called the Student Letter Exchange was formed so young students from different countries could connect through letters, mainly to learn about each other’s cultures. The pen pals were strangers, and the relationship was generally limited to letters, though occasionally, pen pals would meet. That’s how it was for Canadian Ruth Magee, who began a pen pal friendship with Brit Beryl Richmond in 1939. They’ve met twice over the years: once in 1986 and again in 2009. And their pen pal friendship continues today.
Pen pals, both real and imagined, have infused popular culture.
In 1997 Australian author Geraldine Brooks wrote Foreign Correspondence, a memoir about her childhood pen pals in Australia and overseas, and her travels as an adult searching for the people they’d become.
In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown tries to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen, but when that doesn’t work, he switches to a pencil and refers to his pen pal as a pencil pal. And in the film adaptation, Charlie Brown’s pen pal issue has a happy ending when he becomes friends with his little red-haired dream girl.
In the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks develop a pen pal email relationship, unaware that they’re also business rivals. You’ve Got Mail was based on Shop Around the Corner, a 1940s film also focusing on a pen pal relationship.
These days, pen pal relationships are more likely to take place by email than snail mail, though there are a few groups dedicated to matching pen pals who want to connect through physical letters. These include the Letter Writers Alliance and a dedicated Facebook group called the Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals.