Do you like the IDEA of letter writing but perhaps not actually doing so?

A fairly common complaint I observe is that someone agrees to begin a pen pal friendship, but then never actually writes! One individual sent the first letter but never gets a reply. On occasion, perhaps the receiver realized they did not “connect” with or have enough in common with the writer, but I think that is the case only occasionally. More often than not, I think the problem is…

Someone liked the IDEA of letter writing more than actually doing so.

Someone liked the IDEA of finding letters in their mailbox, but didn’t quite consider the effort or needed commitment to find such letters in the mailbox.

It takes time and effort to write a letter. You must sit down with a pen and paper, do a little thinking and contemplating, decide what to write, and then actually begin writing. It involves quieting yourself and focusing, in a world that so often has us distracted and busy. And to form a friendship by mail it takes commitment and dedication, that is, continuing to write in the future even if life circumstances change.

Related to this, is knowing your “pen pal limit” – How many pen pals can you write and be able to keep up, answering with a quality letter in a reasonable time frame? This will vary from person to person. My personal pen pal limit has typically been 15-20, but yours could be much less or more.

How much free time do you have? How much energy do you have? How much do you really like writing?

How much do you enjoy associated things like stationery, note cards, etc? Some of us just love stationery and related hobbies like paper crafts.

These are all important things to consider. Realistically, you may only want 1 or 2 pen pals, while someone else can handle 15-20.

If you are new to pen pals, start slow. Add 1 or 2 new pen pals at a time. If you are keeping up, add 1 or 2 more. Etc. Eventually you’ll realize you have reached your limit.

Writing pen pals has made a comeback in recent years, but before jumping in make sure you like more than the IDEA of it, but have considered the time and effort involved as well.

Pen pals and swapping stuff by mail

Swapping. This is a term pen pals use. Some pen pals are into “swapping” or trading things like stationery, note cards, or stickers. It can be a formal thing, an expectation that you will swap a certain amount each time. For example, it is agreed upon to exchange one note card every letter.

I’ve usually not done swapping, but that does not mean I never enclose stationery or stickers with a letter! If I enclose such, I am not expecting anything back. I dislike sending only a letter, and always look about for something to “tuck-in” along with the letter. Tuck-in ideas here: Tuck-ins…A letter is wonderful but tuck something in too!

But one reason I am not into swapping is that, well, I can be a bit of a “snob” when it comes to stickers and stationery! I admit it. haha. I like “nice” stickers and stationery. And I’ve found that I have not been very pleased when I’ve done some swapping in the past.

For example, I send quality stickers from the scrapbooking section of a craft store, and receive back round teacher stickers – ya know, the type of stickers teachers place on a paper that say “good job” or similar. Or I send a quality note card or stationery (say from Punch Studio or Hallmark or Papyrus), and receive back a cheap note card from a dollar store.

A couple times I felt like a pen pal was trying to take advantage. They observed the stationery I use to write my letters, and then mentioned wanting to swap, apparently hoping to acquire some of the same – but sending me low quality, mediocre stationery in return.

Wow – I hope I don’t sound super snobby. But with swapping, I have an expectation that what is swapped back and forth will be of a similar quality – a fair exchange.

However, as said, I do enclose things with just about every letter I send – see the “tuck-in” post I linked to above.

Pen Pal 101

*This post is a bit long but perhaps scan down it, to see what interests you. There are brief thoughts and links about questions related to letter writing and pen pals.*

Recently I joined a pen pal group on social media, and observing is interesting! Many of those posting are only looking for a pen pal because they are stuck at home due to COVID-19. I wonder if their interest will remain after this is over? Also, it is amusing how little some know about the postal system, as they ask really rudimentary questions about postage. Wow, someone does not know that? I am not making fun, but just amused, since I’ve routinely used the post for 35 years.

Some questions are understandable, and there have been some good ones about letter writing. What do I write in a first letter? How long should a letter be? How often do I write? How many pen pals should I have? Etc. It is great to see people being re-introduced to the idea of letter writing.

I saw an article that said people are talking on the phone more during COVID-19, wanting to hear the voice of others.

In the past I’ve read about increased loneliness in modern times, despite the ease of communicating by text, e-mail, and social media. Many of these modern methods lack a personal touch, and people can still feel isolated despite all the “communicating” taking place. There is indeed something more personal about communicating via a tangible handwritten letter, or hearing someone’s voice on the phone, or getting together in person for coffee.

But regarding some of those basic questions about letter writing, here are brief answers or links to past posts on Postman’s Treasure:

Writing the first letter to a potential new pen friend. A first letter will be lopsided towards you, as you introduce yourself, yet even a first letter can contain dialogue. Also, you are introducing yourself, not sharing your autobiography! haha. Just try to write enough that they get a general idea about who you are.

A letter should be a dialogue, not a monologue. In this post, I share quotes from pen pal ads, where the pen pals express their desire for conversational letters.

♦  How long should a letter be? It is common in the pen pal world for pals to say they want “long letter” pen pals. This does not (usually) mean the person wants to exchange 10 page letters, but rather that they are not interested in overly brief letters that only contain thoughts about the weather. They want letters with more effort than that, more sharing, more depth, etc.

♦ How often should I write? Generally, among pen pals, it is one-for-one. You mail a letter, and then wait for a reply before writing again. Most pen pals prefer regular correspondence. I prefer pen pals that can reply to my letter within 4-6 weeks. I’ve had a couple blog posts related to this:

When you stop hearing from a pen friend. What if you send your letter and receive no reply, even after patiently waiting a while? I encourage you to check in with your pen pal! Maybe a letter got lost, maybe your pen pal’s life has taken a turn for the worse, etc. A friend should…wonder, care, reach out. But with the reasonable expectation that sometimes a pen pal just stops writing and you never learn why.

♦ In regards to the length of time between letters: Where has all our time gone…for letter writing? As a pen pal for 35 years, I’ve noticed a change in the last 10 years or so, even among life-long pen pal enthusiasts. It seems harder to have pen pals that write regularly and consistently. Years ago, most would reply within 2-4 weeks, but now it seems stretched longer and longer, and some only write 2 or 3 times a year.

If you have written a pen pal for years, have an established friendship, and then their life changes, and they can only write a couple times a year? That is different, and I am glad they still keep in touch. But when you are trying to establish a NEW pen pal friendship, letters need to be regular and consistent for a time! It is hard to get to know someone when there is 6 months between letters! You will stay strangers otherwise.

♦ Finally, how many pen pals should you write? That will vary. Find your personal pen pal limit. How many people can you write and still have time to write a quality letter and write back in a reasonable time frame? Start with 1 or 2, and slowly add more. This is about friendship, not bulk mailing. My personal pen pal limit has typically been about 15 – 20 over the years, but your limit could be much lower or higher!

Of course, these are general guidelines, or what is typical among most pen pals. Certainly, some pen pal relationships can be different and not follow the norm!

You may write brief letters and focus on “artsy” correspondence primarily about your shared rubber stamping hobby. You may send weekly brief notes, instead of  long letters every few weeks.  As long as you and your pen friend are on the same page in regards to expectations… Happy writing!


List of pen pal and letter writing resources

Letter Writers Alliance is closing down after all these years. I was never a member, and my only involvement was checking in to their blog on occasion. Yet, I will miss them! Their site remains up for now, and the last post has a great list of pen pal and letter writing resources. See it HERE while it remains up. A partial screen shot:

To save or toss received pen pal letters??

Below is something I wrote for the print “Inky Trail News” when it was still in publication.

In a column last year, I shared my mixed feelings about whether to save or toss all the postal pen pal letters I receive. I can be sentimental and want to save them. Yet, if I did save all letters, after a few years I would literally have thousands! Therefore, I have resorted to an in-between method of saving a “sampling” of letters only. I save a couple of letters from each pen pal each year.

I asked for feedback from Inky Trail subscribers, and received responses from 4 of you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Lisa, Pearl, Cindi, and Mickey! Basically, all of you shared views similar to mine.  In theory you’d like to save all letters but it is not realistic. Cindi mentioned that she used to save everything, but then ran out of room. Mickey likewise emphasized that you just can’t save everything that comes into your house. Ditto for Pearl who only saves favorite letters. Lisa expressed some sentimental regret for tossing letters, but she reached a point where there was no room for it all.

I think when it comes to sentimental ephemera, less can be more. If you have thousands of saved letters, well, that just becomes a big mess. It is overwhelming. It can lose meaning because there is so much of it.

Remember the scene in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Toula’s grandmother shared a little box of cherished family ephemera and heirlooms? It was special and meaningful partly because there were only a handful of treasured items. Imagine instead that the grandma had taken her to a 20×20 storage unit packed filled with family stuff! Likely, that would have been a burden and mess for Toula. What to do with all of it? Truly, less can be more…more meaningful and special.

I think I am going to stick with my “in-between” method of saving a sampling of letters every year. From time to time, I may still have to purge some letters. But in the end, I’ll have a few special letters than I can cherish. I can peruse the letters from time to time, and reminisce on years of friendship via the post.

Friendship Books or FBs

Friendship Books or FBs, abbreviated? Postal pen pals have swapped these little handmade booklets with each other for many years. I remember receiving my first FB when I was a teen around 1985. In the early 2000’s I attended a pen pal picnic, and an older woman remembered them back in the 1950’s. I love history, and have often wondered exactly when and how FBs got started. I suppose we may never know.

What is the point of a FB? It is a way to find new pen friends. When an FB is received, you can sign it. Signing it, at minimum, involves placing your name and address in it. But some include more, such as their age, hobbies, and anything specific they may or may not be looking for in a pen pal. I always include some of these “more” things, as I am not willing to write someone based on a name and address alone. And if someone writes me, I hope it is because they thought we had some things in common.

The FB is passed around until it is full of names and addresses. Then what? Well, an FB on the front page says “FB for” and “FB by” – one pen friend may make it for another pen friend, or you can make it for yourself (the for and by would be the same). When full, technically it should be returned to the person it was made for. However, this does not happen very often. I guess people don’t want to spend the postage. But regardless, as the FB is passed around, it is a way to find new pen friends.

Lately, whenever I make an FB, I write:
FB for: the last person to sign it. Enjoy!
FB by: me

Generally, a FB is small pieces of paper stapled together in the corner. Sometimes it has a cover, and sometimes not. I’ve placed two photos below. The first photo has FB’s I have received from others. The other photo has 4 new FBs that I made.

Friendships Books can be a way to be creative! You can utilize cute photos or pictures clipped from various sources, stickers, rubber stamps, etc.

FBs can vary in “quality” – from more sloppy to more carefully and creatively put together. Sometimes a pen pal will write that they swap “neat” FBs, meaning they don’t care for sloppy ones. From time to time (not often) I have received a very sloppy FB: the stapled pages are literally scrap paper that already have old writing on them (!), the pages are not cut evenly, vary in size, etc. A mess really! I am not sure why someone would make such a sloppy one?

There are also variations of FBs, such as a “slam” where each page asks the signer a question. Or friendship “sheets” – essentially the same as a FB, except it is on a single sheet of paper.

I have found many great pen friends over the years through FBs.

I’ve been posting a lot this month, and will likely slow down. If you appreciate my blog, do consider sharing it with other pen friends online. Thanks! Note I have links to some other pen pal themed blogs in the right column.

Print pen pal publications of the past

Here are some copies of print pen pal publications that ceased publishing a few years ago: Inky Trail News, Pen Pal Expressions, and Postman’s Treasure. Yes, the last one was my own publication – after which I named this blog. The issues in the photo range from 2002 to 2007, so they have not been out of print that long.

Why did we cease publishing? For various reasons, each of our circumstances being different. But these were all published as a hobby, primarily as a labor of love, and sometimes it is time to “move on” from such an endeavor. We did charge a fee to help cover our expenses such as photocopying and postage, but these were informal pursuits. There were other such pen pal publications, in addition to the ones in the photo. Each had a bit of a different focus. For example, mine (Postman’s Treasure) had less pen pal ads and more info about the pen pal hobby itself. For example, articles about improving your letter writing, historical letters, being a good friend by mail, pen reviews, etc.

Pen Pal Expressions had pen pal ads, and its focus was geared toward the creative pen pal, with articles and ideas about paper art, card making, rubber stamping, etc.

Inky Trail News, besides pen pal ads, was filled with columns and articles about a large variety of topics that were related to pen pals in one way or another. One column I remember was entitled something like “the view from my window” and a pen pal would describe exactly that. After all, one aspect of letter writing is learning about another person’s life. Right?

I really became a part of the world of pen pals and pen pal publications through the 1980’s sticker collecting craze when I was a teenager. There were informal sticker collecting newsletters, as well as the professional Stickers Magazine. Yes, sticker collecting was so popular that there was an actual magazine! Often sticker collectors were looking for pen pals, in order to swap stickers. Stickers Magazine had a pen pal section but so many thousands sent in their ad that only a small number actually made it into an issue. My ad never made it. Boohoo! Maybe that is one reason some of the informal newsletters sprang up? I received my first “FB” (friendship book) from someone I swapped stickers with by mail.

Actually, Postman’s Treasure was originally called…are you ready for it…The Razz-M-Tazz Sticker Club! haha. Over time it became more about pen pals than stickers. It was similar for Pen Pal Expressions. Chrystal’s also began with a different name and was focused on stickers but over time morphed into more! Actually, I think both of our publications changed names several times as we grew older and our interests expanded. Chrystal and I, since we both published print newsletters for fun, kept in touch with each other. Actually, a number of us communicated to help each other out with our publications.

I have another post planned with photos of the few special stickers I have from my 1980’s collection. And if you don’t know what an FB is, I have a post planned about that too!

Checking the mailbox…again!

A few years ago a pen pal clipped this cartoon and sent it to me. You should be able to click on it to enlarge it. It is soooo me!! Yes, I admit, I have been known to check the mailbox more than once a day.

No mail today? It can’t be! I’ll check again.

We had a letter carrier for a while who would neglect to get some of your mail in your box the first time, and she would come a second time, shortly thereafter, with it. So, hey, there may be legitimate reasons to check the box twice! You never know!

** Postman’s Treasure is a free wordpress blog, and because it is free, you may see ads. Sorry about that, and please know that I do not have any control over the ads you see. **

Some postal themed blogs…

Here are several postal themed blogs I’ve found, but not all post regularly.

Lost Art Revived, Crafty Snail Mail, Letter Writing, Pen Pals, and Paper Crafting.
This blogger has not posted in some time, but it is worth a look through past posts to see all the photos of creative envelopes and stationery! This blogger also has an etsy store where she sells letter writing kits.

Mrs Murphy’s Mailbox Magic! A blog that celebrates all things postal.
This blogger shares various mail related thoughts and ideas. A recent post is about books and letters, and states “Most of the postal people I correspond with are also book people. It must be the sheer love of words.”
– I too love books! How about you?

Paper Pastries. This blog is actually for a brick and mortar store in California. Look on google for the location and some great photos. The store sells paper related goodies – stationery, rubber stamps, pens, etc. You can shop online too. A recent blog post interviews someone about their rubber stamp collection.
– Not all pen pals are into rubber stamps but I am. I’ve stamped for 20 plus years, and have gone through phases of more or less stamping. Right now I am in a “more” phase!