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Guest Post: Is Penpal Letter Writing a Thing of the Past?

pen-palsWe live in an age of digital communication, and the art of letter writing has almost vanished completely as a result. However, there have been concerted efforts by some letter writing enthusiasts to restore this ancient art to mainstream life. One of the ways in which letter writing is making a comeback is with the resurgence of traditional penpal relationships.

Penpal letter writing peaked in the 1980s

The penpal phenomenon really took off during the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways, this form of communication was a trailblazer in the sphere of global message sending. Schools actively encouraged children to find a penpal for a variety of reasons. Firstly, regularly writing with pen and paper was a fun way to encourage kids to practice their handwriting. But more importantly, having a penpal in a far-off land was considered to be a major educational advantage for young people.

Kids who had been brought up in just one country, and who had never had the chance to learn about different cultures, religions and languages could glean a wealth of knowledge from real people. A range of penpal agencies emerged during this golden age for letter writing – giving kids the chance to hone their written language skills in a way that wasn’t considered stuffy and boring.

The digital age signalled a premature end for penpal letter writing

Unfortunately, the penpal phenomenon didn’t last long. The emergence of fax machines, the Internet and email meant kids no longer had to take the time and effort to craft a well-written letter on quality paper. In more recent years, social media has grown so dominant that young people have developed their own abbreviated language that is often almost undecipherable from native languages.

But it seems that the success of social media and the Internet is actually turning many people back to pen and paper. Several new organisations and clubs have been set up to promote the art of letter writing to penpals. And ironically, many of these groups have been started on Facebook. There have also been various letter writing competitions organised online in recent years, including the annual Month of Letters Challenge, which requires participants to send a physical piece of mail through the post every day for a month.

The Internet and the written word working together

Incredibly, there are thousands of children who have never seen a handwritten letter. When kids first see the great beauty and personalised nature of a written message, they often become intrigued, and want to know how to get involved. As a result, hundreds of subscription services have popped up all over the Internet. For a fixed fee of as little as £3 per month, members are given access to a database of potential penpals. Subscribers can also use a range of reference materials that explain how to write letters with care and respect for the recipient.

Believe it or not, there are some very clear guidelines concerning the writing of penpal letters, and they can differ depending on the association. For instance, there are very clear guidelines on the size and shape of the envelopes that must be used. Some penpal associations have specific rules on where addresses must be placed, acceptable salutations, bad language and a range of other issues related to the handwritten letters.

It is clear that there is still an appetite amongst education providers, children and the general public for penpal letter writing. This artform was considered a relic of the past just a few years ago, but with the help of the Internet, it is making a surprising comeback across the world.

  • Melanie

    I signed up for a pen pal when I was 8 or 9 through a magazine service for kids. That only lasted a year or so, though.

    Now, I’m pen pals with a couple of relatives and a friend. I still find the idea of writing a stranger wonderfully sweet, though.

    Glad to hear the internet is bringing it back. 🙂