One of the fun blessings of living a simple life is also something I have done since I was a kid. I had a teacher in elementary school that introduced the concept of being a pen pal. From the first time I received a response in the mailbox, I knew this was something I would try and do for the rest of my life.
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Take a break in reading this post, and spend a moment or two to think about this:
When was the last time you received something in the mail that a) wasn’t a bill; b) wasn’t something you ordered; c) wasn’t junk mail; or d) a birthday or Christmas card?
Now, stop and remember the last time you received a letter from a friend or family member. Were you surprised to get it? Did it make you smile?
If you are like me, you first grabbed a cup of hot tea or a cold glass of lemonade, settled in to your favorite spot, and took a moment to enjoy a written visit with the friend or family member that sent it.
The History of Pen Pals
According to history, Queen Atossa of Persia wrote the first letter. Hers was sent by messenger, and didn’t require a stamp. Prior to that, letters were sent by merchant ships, on horseback or by friends who were traveling.
These letters were not contained in envelopes. If sent through a courier or merchant ship, the receiver was the one who was required to pay ‘postage’.
The ‘Black Penny’ was the first actual postage stamp, and was issued in Great Britain in 1840. Letter writing itself was the only form of communication between folks who lived great distances apart.
Benjamin Franklin was assigned the position of US Postmaster in 1775. Actual postage stamps were issued in the US in 1847, but it wasn’t until 1855 that prepayment of stamps became a requirement.
The Pony Express was the result of William H Russell failing to get the backing of the US Postal Service to send his mail. President Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address was sent by Pony Express, arriving in California in 7 days and 17 hours – the fastest Pony Express delivery recorded.
Famous Pen Pals
Pen pals aren’t just between family members. Some famous people also corresponded with each other. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx exchanged a letter or two? Here are some other famous pen pals:
P.G. Wodehouse wrote to Agatha Christie, George Orwell and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Edith Wharton sent a note to her literary hero, Henry James, and it led to a lasting friendship.
Groucho Marx was a pen pal with T.S. Eliot.
Jimmy Stewart started writing letters to Margaret Sullivan. In person, they detested each other. But in the letters, they fell in love. (Did you guess this one? Yep. This was the plot of the movie Shop Around the Corner, which was remade in 1998 into the movie, You’ve Got Mail.)
My Personal History with Pen Pals
As you already read, my first pen pal was a school assignment. Although enjoyable, it was also short lived. The others weren’t quite so famous, but I still loved getting letters from them.
My second pen pal was a great uncle who lived in Wisconsin. He was a delightful man well into his 70s at the time. I wasn’t even in my teen years, but we still corresponded. I could hardly wait for his next epistle – he told me all about his bees, and always ended his letter with a silly little joke or riddle.
In sixth grade, we moved. I ended up in a new school, not knowing anyone. A pretty strawberry blonde girl saw me walk in, motioned for me to sit with her, and we became fast friends.
Once school let out, she moved back to Michigan. Almost immediately, the letters started up. Today, Deb and I are still friends. She finally was able to move back here, and our friendship was quickly re-established. Now, she lives south of us, but our friendship has endured.
To learn as much as I could about my new life, I subscribed to Grit Magazine. As a regular feature, they offered a ‘Looking For…’ column. In it, folks could write in and request “seeds, books, recipes, patterns and new and old country friends”.
There were a couple of people who were looking for pen pals and had the same interests I did. I took a chance, and ended up corresponding with two delightful women.
Not too long after that, I joined a chat room designed for homesteaders. At one point, there was a post that focused on people who would like to become pen pals with others. I signed up.
Today, one of those women and I have been corresponding for eleven years. I always look forward to getting a letter from Rae, and catching up with her world. Although the miles are too many for us to visit in person, I still make it a point to take time out of my day to ‘sit down’ with her over a glass of lemonade or a cup of hot tea.
We now take care of our personal correspondence through e-mail and other Social Media. A note to your friend on the other side of the country can take less than a second to send, and be waiting in an inbox in almost the same amount of time.
Unfortunately, that same inbox may be overburdened with advertisements and other notices. It can be wearisome to wade through all of it. Another issue is that the message never arrives, and gets lost in cyberspace.
My biggest issue with getting an email is it borderlines on impersonal. However, knowing someone took the time it sit down and write a letter means so much more to me. It means they were thinking of you for the time it took to write a few pages. In their minds, they are sitting at the table ‘visiting’ with you.
Questions are asked. Thoughts are shared. Ideas are presented. Then we place it in a stamped, addressed envelope and put it in the mailbox.
From there, we eagerly wait for the postman to drop a return letter in the box. Daily, we sift through the bills and advertisements, hoping for something fun.
A Touch of Lagniappe
Although letters are the focal point of having a pen pal, it is also fun to add that touch of Lagniappe. If you have tried a new recipe lately, and think your pen pal would enjoy it, add it to the letter. There is not a knitter or other craftsperson alike who doesn’t enjoy getting a new pattern.
At one time, I corresponded with Kathleen, an older friend of the family who mentored me with my farming goals. In my letters, I sent her news of what I was doing, dreams I had for the farm, and asked her advice on a regular basis. I sent drawing, diagrams and copies of magazine articles I thought she might enjoy.
One day, I received a letter from a woman named Linda. She expressed her appreciation for me taking the time to write to Kathleen. Come to find out, Kathleen was sharing my letters with friends and church members, and there was a whole group of people waiting to see what would happen on our farm next!
How to Find Pen Pals
Whether we like it or not, it is a scary world out there, and you still need to be careful as to corresponding with strangers. You may want to start looking in your own address book first.
Is there a family member you enjoy visiting with, but lives too far away? You may want to start there, and drop her a note. Kathleen was a friend of my Aunts, Dot and Emily. It was Emily who suggested I contact Kathleen and tell her about my farm.
If there is a person you have met on a Social Media channel, and have begun corresponding with them more through email, ask them if they would be interested in becoming ‘snail mail’ pen pals. If you are in a chat room (a reliable, SAFE, chat room) that focuses on a particular hobby, see if anyone is interested in becoming a pen pal.
Grit Magazine is another option. However, I will say this about that. When I sent my initial letter to one of the women, she mentioned that she had received over 100 responses. I don’t know if that is the norm, but there is a chance your letter may not get a response.
Again, I do suggest you be very careful finding pen pals through unknown or uncertain avenues, such as a general Google search. There is no telling who you will hear from, or the dangers that can create.
Instead, find someone you already know and are familiar with, or look for a reliable, safe avenue to find your pen pal.
The Simple Life of Pen Pals
Are you ready for finding something other than the dreary bills and advertising in your mailbox? Wouldn’t you rather find a letter from a friend? It’s easy to get started.
Pull up a rocker, grab a glass of ice cold lemonade or a cup of hot tea. Get a pen and some paper, and start writing.
In return, you will find yourself in the same rocker, enjoying a written visit from someone special – and not having to put pen to a check to make out this month’s payment!