In the past year or so, I’ve noticed an increase in a particular type of video that shows up on my recommended page on YouTube. Specifically, pen pal opening or writing videos with little to no commentary and soothing background music. Of course, this didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve been bullet journaling for almost two years now and have been watching those kinds of videos for just as long, so it certainly wasn’t a complete surprise to me to see those pen pal videos. Soon, I became entranced and spent hours watching such videos, sometimes while doing other chores or homework.

The History of Mail

Now, it’s no secret that the age of postage mail has long since passed and faded. Many older people often complain about the lack of real, physical mail and communication due to the popularity and mainstream-ness of the internet. What was once the most common and quickest way to exchange information and get to know others has become primarily used to receive bills and packages and influxes of university promotion mail.

The advent of mail and sending others letters or items with messages written on them can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. The state-sponsored postal system itself can be traced back to Egypt where pharaohs would send decrees, keep up with taxes, and gain information about far-reaching parts of their kingdom through a courier system. As writing and transportation systems evolved and grew, the process of sending mail itself began to change and evolve alongside it. Inventions such as trains and railways allowed for mail to be disseminated much faster and thus led to an increase in overall mail being sent as people received responses much quicker than before.

With the creation and common use of the internet came the downfall and decline of physical mail. What came to be referred to as “snail mail” by internet users was much slower and often less reliable than emails, faxing, and direct messaging. Internet communication also brought with it the advantage of reducing the risk of others knowing someone’s direct address and sending potentially threatening or harmful items through the postal system. Thus, many people turned to email for important communication needs and texting or direct messaging for more casual conversations.

Pen Pals and Their Resurgence

So what does this history have to do with pen pals and their growth in popularity? Well, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals were cut off from their loved ones and had little-to-no face-to-face interaction with others. Many people have developed mood disorders such as depression or anxiety due to the pandemic, and for many months people wished for human interaction while also wanting to remain as safe as possible and protect others. People were tired. They were alone. Zoom and Facetime, among other digital video communication programs, allowed for a modicum of that interaction, but the physical aspect of it was still lost and many didn’t have communication outside of family members.

While pre-pandemic, there was already a rise in pen pal letters occurring, the pandemic truly cemented the want and, in some cases, need, for any kind of social interaction. Thus, more people began writing pen pal letters and becoming friends with others who live all over the globe. What has become especially popular is the use of stickers, scrapbooking paper, stamps, and all sorts of stationery to decorate and design these letters. It’s common to see Instagram photos of such letters with many decorative elements, and the authors and creators of the letters often have an overarching theme to the layout and design of their letters. Even names are stylized.

Image by @nocturnallisa

The previously mentioned “penpal with me” videos show the process of creating these letters, and many people include many extras other than a letter for their penpal. Often, they include a short list of questions, some answers to questions their pen pal previously sent, music recommendations, and extraneous pieces in the form of stickers, extra scrapbook/colorful paper, and other such things. These videos receive thousands of views, and there are hundreds of videos when you look them up. There truly is a whole subculture surrounding the whole process.

There are Instagram pages dedicated to connecting penpals with each other. People send DMs to the page and in a few days to a few weeks, their ‘pitch’ for penpals will be posted onto the page. People looking for penpals will go onto those pages and reach out to those individuals whose pitch interests them, and they soon begin to form those friendships and connections.

Takeaway

People need reassurance and connection. When we are cut off from everyone, we crave connection in whatever ways possible. Letters filled with personal stories and information, little stickers and colorful papers are attractive to people. Even with the quarantine, people will look for connections. Penpals provided an outlet for that. I would even recommend people try to do this with their friends for fun, especially if you don’t want to give your address to random people from the internet. There are tutorial videos describing the process and basic necessities. Letters don’t have to be fancy and decorated. Even the most simple letters can bring a lot of joy to someone’s day. All someone really needs is a pen, some paper, an envelope and postage.

In regards to finding pen pals, the best way to start and get an understanding of the process is to exchange letters with friends you already know. In this way, it's a much safer and easier process, especially when thinking about sharing addresses with strangers. But if you're comfortable (and/or if you're under 18, you have parental permission), you can look up pen pal instagrams such as penpals._.wanted or penpalxsearch who post people looking for penpals that you can begin to connect with.