Pen pals can become friends for life

Published 3:26 pm Thursday, February 11, 2016

Recently I heard some ladies referring to their pen pals that they have had since childhood.

It brought up the question. What is a pen pal?

It is a  person with whom one becomes friendly by exchanging letters, especially someone in a foreign country whom one has never met. A pen pal relationship was often used  in a foreign language class,  to learn more about other countries and lifestyles and to make friendships.

As with any friendships in life, some people remain pen pals for only a short time, while others continue to exchange letters and presents for life.

Some pen pal eventually arrange to meet face to face; sometimes leading to serious relationships, or even marriage.

A pen pal can come in all ages, nationalities, cultures, languages and interests. Pals may seek new pen friends based on their own age group, a specific occupation, hobby or select someone totally different from them to gain knowledge about the world around them.

A modern variation on the traditional pen pal arrangement is to exchange email addresses as well as twitter or Facebook information. This has the advantage of saving money and being more immediate, allowing many messages to be exchanged in a short period of time.

The disadvantage is that the communication can be lost  if the email messages are not routinely saved.

Many people prefer to receive paper letters, gaining the satisfaction of seeing their name carefully printed on a thick envelope in the mail box. Using postal mail, it is possible to trade coupons,  postcards, stamps and anything else light and flat enough to fit inside an envelope.  Many pencillers like to trade sheets of stickers, note cards and stationery sets.

While the traditional snail mail pen pal relationship has fallen into a decline due to modern technology closing the world’s communication gap, the Australian author Geraldine Brooks wrote a memoir entitled “Foreign Correspondence” (1997) about her childhood, which was enriched by her exchanges of letters with other children in Australia and overseas and her travels as an adult in search of the people they had become.

At the 1964/1965 World’s Fair in New York, the Parker Pen pavilion provided a computer pen pal matching service.  In the Peanuts comic strip from the 1960s and 1970s, Charlie Brown tries to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen but after several literally “botched” attempts, Charlie switches to using a pencil and referring to his pen pal as his “pencil-pal,” with his first letter to his “pencil-pal” explaining the reason for the name change.

The 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail” is a romantic comedy about two people in a pen pal email courtship who are unaware that they are also business rivals.

Maybe instead of being a pen pal it should be called a computer friend, tech friend, or keyboard friend.

During the 1940s I had a pen pal that I got out of the back of “Jack and Jill Magazine.” I never kept up the exchange. I suspect that many pals were the result of World War II. Writing to soldiers was encouraged.


Jo-Ann Boepple works at the Edwardsburg Area History Museum.