Pick Up That Pen

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.

Happy writing!

8 thoughts on “Pick Up That Pen

  1. I had a pen pal in Australia, as a child, and we corresponded for a long time through marriages, children etc. but then I guess life got in the way as we lost touch. I feel bad about that. She was very nice. I have learned recently that some teachers are matching children with classrooms in other countries and encouraging them to exchange letters. There is still something special about getting something in the mail.

    1. I agree about physical mail feeling special, Darlene. I think the pen pal relationship as a whole is special too. I’m glad that teachers are continuing to match children with counterparts in other countries. Those connections are so valuable.

  2. I never had an “official” pen pal, but for many years I exchanged written letters with 12-13 different people. Over the years we’ve moved to email, which is fine, but not quite the same! Always enjoy your posts, Laura.

    1. Wow, Debra, I’m impressed. That’s a big commitment of time and energy to be in touch with that many people. But what an enriching experience!

  3. One of the great disappointments of my childhood was not having a pen pal. I wrote dozens of letters to strangers hoping for a connection, but no one wrote back! So many hours waiting by the mailbox, then going inside with a heavy heart.
    I now have a pen pal (email) in Australia and it is a relationship I treasure. We started as writers in a class and have evolved into just plain friends, who may or may not be writing a novel. 🙂

    1. I know how important your pen pal relationship is to you, Alice. And I’m intrigued that you may be writing a novel together!

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