When was the last time you wrote a letter?
I have read/seen a few articles online (ironically) lately lamenting the decline of the handwritten letter. If it weren’t for bills, junk mail, and the Christmas season, the USPS would have gone under by now.
So here I sit, on my elitist throne, wringing my hands over the pending loss of this wonderful communication platform and then… I ask myself the question at the top of this page.
I will refrain from giving my answer and appease you by saying that I feel pretty sheepish.
However, this also got a question rolling around in my head. Where did the term “Pen Pal” originally come from? The phrase itself seems pretty self-explanatory – a pal you pen letters to – and these relationships have existed as long as writing utensils and paper, but who coined the phrase?
My inner librarian jumped up, straightened her pencil skirt and wire-rim specs and offered assistance. Of course, I had to share my research with all of you.
There seems to be a bit of confusion on when the first official Pen Pal relationship was formed, but most of the dates I discovered were in the 1930s. One organization in particular, the Student Letter Exchange has been assisting in the matching of Pen Pals since 1936, when a teacher decided that his students should connect with students in other countries to pique their curiosity and expand their knowledge of the world’s cultures.
Pen Pal companies have been popular at various points throughout the past century. Some of these were/are paid services, which match letter writers with another enthusiast with similar interests.
One of the more interesting anecdotes I found about Pen Pals was in regard to the Parker Pen company’s exhibit at the 1964/1965 New York’s World Fair. The World Fair is popularly known to have been an elaborate display of America’s movement into the Space Age with many futuristic exhibits and modern advancements up for show. One such marvel was a computer in the Parker Pen Company’s pavilion, which matched Pen Pals using this strange new computerized technology. The service was discontinued in 1967 and none of the information was transferred to other organizations or Pen Pal clubs.
Small disclaimer that this interesting tidbit came from Wikipedia, and it’s credibility may not be 100% sound. However, for the sake of my imagination (a crowd of men and women in 60s attire, watching in awe as a large metal box with flashing lights seems to use some form of thought to match Pen Pal intenders… They stand in line, either cautious or skeptical, waiting to receive the address of their future friend in exchange for their own), I’ll take it.
Excuse me while I go write a letter.