Although today you can’t walk down a street without dodging people who are looking down while texting or emailing on their phones, it wasn’t always this way. Today people engage in social media with friends, family, and brand new acquaintances, but the original concept of corresponding with a pen pal – the old fashioned pen and paper way – is still going strong.
A pen pal (also known as pen-pal or penpal) is simply one-half of a correspondence relationship in which two friends or acquaintances keep in touch on a regular basis. You may be old enough to remember when the Internet did not exist, when pen pals relied solely on pen and paper and postage to keep in touch. Perhaps as a kid you made a new friend while on a family vacation to the beach. Chances are, before saying goodbye, you said, “Let’s be pen pals. What’s your address?”
The term “pen pal” is fairly self-explanatory, but have you ever wondered about the history of pen pals or heard some of the interesting outcomes of pen pal friendships? We thought it would be fun to share some of this “letter lore” with you and perhaps inspire you to contact a former pen pal or find a new one.
WHY DO PEOPLE BECOME PEN PALS?
Pen pals often have a purpose. For instance, teachers have initiated pen pal correspondence for their students to learn about different cultures while practicing writing a friendly letter and all the language skills that entails. Students enjoy the process, because it does not feel like a traditional classroom assignment, and they can share letters they receive from their foreign pen pals in class. Students can also use this type of pen pal relationship to practice writing in a foreign language. Sacré bleu! Do we have homework again? Whatever the purpose of these classroom-based pen pals, the benefits to literacy development are evident. Some teachers have even expanded this concept to artifact exchanges so the experience is even more tangible.
Other pen pals participate in trading or exchanging small items, such as stamps, coupons, bookmarks, coins, or stickers. This adds a little zing to the pen pal exchange beyond the written word. Many people pen pal solely with members of the military as a way to boost morale and show appreciation to our men and women in uniform. As world travel becomes more accessible and affordable, many people establish pen pal relationships in order to learn languages. Others simply take up pen palling as a hobby or as a way to brighten their day.
WHAT ARE SOME FAMOUS PEN PAL RELATIONSHIPS?
It should be no surprise that authors make good pen pals. After all, writers gonna write! Some of the more famous author pen pals include the lifelong friendship between Henry James and Edith Wharton, which began when Wharton sent a “good luck” note to her literary hero. Their pen pal exchange developed into a true friendship and professional relationship that included sending each other manuscripts to critique. Other literary pen pals include poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell; Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Anais Nin and Henry Miller; and P.G. Wodehouse, who corresponded with the likes of Agatha Christie, George Orwell, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
OUR FAVORITE PEN PAL TRIVIA:
- Did you know that June 1 is National Pen Pal Day in the United States? Go ahead, mark your calendar, and make a new friend!
- Greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese and early Egyptians, but they weren’t common to the masses until the 1850s when manufacturing and mailing greeting cards became affordable. Some pen pals prefer exchanging greeting cards or even postcards instead of traditional letters.
- Our favorite pen pal movie of all-time is Shop Around the Corner (1940) starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Coworkers in a Budapest luggage shop who detest each are – you guessed it – secret pen pals! “Oh, my Dear Friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.” The film was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
- Singer-songwriter Jerry Salley wrote “Paper and Pen” for country vocalist Alecia Nugent. We won’t spoil it here, but like any letter you receive in the mail, this is a song you’ll want to listen to right to the end!
Are you a fan of the Peanuts cartoon? Poor Charlie Brown! He had problems using a fountain pen, so he gave up on the idea of “pen-pal” and instead became a “pencil-pal” so his words would be legible. Charlie Brown wrote his first “pencil-pal” letter in 1958, and 36 years later the identity of his correspondent was revealed to be a girl from Scotland.
P.S. OUR FAVORITE POST-SCRIPT FROM A PEN PAL LETTER:
We can’t close out a post about pen pals without adding a post-script (P.S.) In this case, we’ll borrow from America’s most beloved author. Did you know that author Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) and his wife Olivia corresponded with young fans of the author, eventually creating an informal club of sorts? Twain dubbed this the Juggernaut Club. In a 1901 letter to one such fan, Miss Muriel M. Pears (also from Scotland, like Charlie Brown’s pen pal!), Mark Twain added this unique post-script about his pen pal club. We’ll let him have the last word here:
P.S. Did you know? I have a Club—a private Club, which is all my own. I appoint the Members myself, & they can’t help themselves, because I don’t allow them to vote on their own appointment, & I don’t allow them to resign! They are all friends whom I have never seen (save one), but who have written friendly letters to me. By the laws of my Club there can be only one member in each country, & there can be no male member but myself. Some day I may admit males, but I don’t know—they are capricious & inharmonious, & their ways provoke me a good deal. It is a matter which the Club shall decide. I have made four appointments in the past three or four months: you as Member for Scotland—oh, this good while! a young citizeness of Joan of Arc’s home-region as Member for France; a Mohammedan girl as Member for Bengal; & a dear & bright young niece of mine as Member for the United States—for I do not represent a country myself but am merely Member at Large for the Human Race. You must not try to resign, for the laws of the Club do not allow that. You must console yourself by remembering that you are in the best of company; that nobody knows of your membership except myself; that no member knows another’s name, but only her country; that no taxes are levied & no meetings held—(but how dearly I should like to attend one!) One of my members is a princess of a royal house, another is the daughter of a village bookseller on the continent of Europe. For the only qualification for membership is intellect & the spirit of good will; other distinctions, hereditary or acquired, do not count. May I send you the Constitution & Laws of the Club? I shall be so glad if I may. It is a document which my daughter Jean type-writes for me when I need one for a new member, & she would give her eyebrows to know what it is all about, but I strangle her curiosity by saying, “There are much cheaper type-writers than you are, my dear, & if you try to pry into the sacred mysteries of this Club one of your prosperities will perish, sure.”