Are PenPals Obsolete?

Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 12.13.20 PMThe world has gotten MUCH smaller as technology has allowed us to reach out and instantly “touch” each other across continents.

Blogging is an excellent example of this small world phenomenon. Comments arrive from all over the globe, and blogging-friendships arise.

However, this age of instant around-the-world communication is relatively new. Younger folks of today don’t really give it a second thought, while I still look at each comment that comes in from anywhere beyond my own locale as a small huge wonder.

When I was 14, the World’s Fair was held in Flushing, New York. Admission was $2. It was an easy bus ride for me, and I was able to visit the Fair several times.

Much of that Fair was carted off by Disney and pieces still exist at the Disneyland Parks. (In Florida the Carousel of Progress always brings back memories of 1964 …even though, of course, it has been greatly updated, now.)

But beyond those technological wonders was an unassuming little building that was working miracles…. the Parker Pen Pavilion.

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At the Parker Pen Pavilion, you could get matched with a pen-pal from anywhere in the world. This was extraordinary. To “meet” another teen from another country. Oh, my.

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The thrill of getting to know someone from so far away! Of course, language was a large barrier. There was no google-translate in those days, so this limited the options. My match was with a young girl in India, who, to my delight, was able to correspond with me in English. We would write on this thinner-than-thin blue paper that folded up into it’s own envelope and would be sent by “air mail” (how exotic!). We wrote regularly for years, but sadly this stopped when she married.

I did a bit of google searching and I am not alone in my fond memories of experiencing the treasure of an international pen-pal through the magic of the Parker Pen Pavilion at the World’s Fair. Thousands of people were matched with penpals, and some friendships have survived all these years.

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Today we can reach someone around the world in seconds, share entire libraries of photos, and have live (free) face-to-face conversations across our magical devices. That thin blue paper is a distant antique memory.

So, answering my own question, I guess the answer would be yes, PenPals are obsolete.

But this (today) is better, I think. The more we share, the more we know how much we are all alike… and it doesn’t matter where we live.

And that’s a good thing to know. πŸ™‚

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30 thoughts on “Are PenPals Obsolete?

  1. My one Aunt’s husband ran off with his pen pal. True story. I still have boxes of letters, not from pen pals but written on that light weight paper and other pretty writing paper going back to my school days. We also used to collect different types of writing paper. Oh wow, this has just taken me on a long trip down memory lane. Think I need to get that old box of letters out …

    • Good for you to keep all that! Did you write to anyone who lived far away? I remember filling the page with script and then turning it and writing on the edges as well, covering every bare spot. (And your Aunt’s husband? tsk! tsk!)

  2. I had two different pen pals in Japan, both boys, believe it or not. That’s who I got matched up with through whatever the connecting group was where I signed up. Can’t remember now, but it might have been something offered through the scouts, or something. I wrote one of them for several years, before he began to develop a political slant to his letters that made me uncomfortable. I never officially stopped writing him, but each of us wrote less and less frequently, until it ended on its own. I was a typical very young teenaged girl, not particularly interested in politics at that time, and he was becoming a grown man, and full of ideas that made no sense to me. (They still don’t, actually.)

    But for a while there, I really looked forward to getting those letters in the mail. And I rememer the tissue thin paper. We called it onionskin, and all air mail letters needed to be written on it to keep the weight (and therefore the postage) down.

    Some time after I had stopped writing this penpal, I started writing another young man who went to college several hours away. Unlike my penpal, his letters had a distinctly different tone to them, and my heart would nearly stop when I found one in my mailbox. This boy had an endearing habit of drawing small cartoon figures where you would normally put the return address, and I would know immediately what he was doing the day he wrote the letter. When he was planning a trip to Tampa (and therefore, to see me), he always drew a figure with a suitcase at his feet, with “Tampa Or Bust” written across it, thumb out as though hitching a ride, and I would know instantly he would be home that weekend. *sigh* I had forgotten all about that sweet boy. Now I remember both he and my penpals very fondly, thanks to you!

    Today is better, in most ways. Today, we are spoiled for choices and can write, send instant messages, share photos and videos in minutes, and all to friends all over the globe, as you say. Some of these friendships will just be superficial, but I have made some very close friends as well, over the years that I have been involved in emailing. I think it is nothing short of a miracle! But right this minute, I am fondly remembering how excited I would be every time I found an envelope in my mailbox with a little cartoon figure hitching a ride to Tampa.

    • What a wonderful story! And you bring up an interesting “miss” with today’s technology… the anticipation of waiting for that letter to arrive in the mail. That’s been lost. But I guess we have gained a lot in return. Thanks, Marcia, for sharing such great memories! πŸ™‚

      • It was my pleasure, SC. Thank YOU for triggering such a nice memory. I’m still feeling all verklempt right now. In a totally good way! And wondering, as we people of a “certain age” do from time to time, whatever happened to that boy……

  3. You’ve taken me back! I remember having several pen pals, and the glamour of airmail letters being sent and arriving, Happy days. But you are right blogging has opened up the world, and like you I’m still amazed and fascinated by who drops by my blog

    • It’s so true…. just looking at the comments to this post …. they have arrived from every corner of the world. And yes, there was a special ‘something’ … glamour, anticipation … to sending and receiving those airmail letters. Changes, but good changes. πŸ™‚

    • I’ve never stopped being amazed by it all. I just think of all I’ve learned from you…. and even if we were penpals ‘back then’, it would have taken months to share all the pictures and info you share on your blog in a single day. Miraculous, indeed! πŸ™‚

  4. Trudi says:

    I remember writing to my cousin in Israel on that microscopically thin airgram. You tried to write in tiny writing to get the most out of your letter. Last week I needed to ask her a question, so I just emailed her and within minutes she answered me. I’m still amazed that we can do this.

    • I feel the same way! Amazed, always. I remember taking that thin paper and writing tiny little words, and then turning it sideways, writing in the margins as well, filling in any blank space. And you couldn’t share photos because the postage would be too expensive. Now your cousin can see anything you want to share, and visa versa … in seconds. Never imagined it. πŸ™‚

  5. Other than friends who moved away, the only other time I had pen pals was in school when we’d exchange letters with students from another school across town. Nothing exotic. As you and others have mentioned, blogging and social media have opened up new ways of connecting with people around the world. I wouldn’t say that pen pals are obsolete… we just need a different term to better reflect the medium we are using. Keyboard pals? Eh, no rush to come up with a new label just yet.

    By the way, have you come across the French “paper is not dead” commercial that has been floating around the web? I posted it on another blog a few weeks ago, but it seems like a great fit for your blog. http://vimeo.com/61795960

    I am a bit behind in reading blogs, so you may have already covered it.

      • I figured you had probably seen that video. I am behind on reading blogs. They showed this at a dept staff meeting at work a few months ago. Right after, the meeting facilitator reminded everyone to nominate a co worker for quarterly awards via an online link sent by email…or using paper forms available in the lunch room. Without missing a beat, a few people shouted Emma!

    • I’ve never been good at imagining the future. I remember arguing with my son that visiting a website for a company would be silly because it would just be like choosing to look at a commercial. I never thought of online shopping or contacting the company or comparing products… all the things we can do, now. So as for newspapers…. I have no guess about them. I think they are becoming obsolete, but who knows. Maybe there will be another great morph around the corner.

  6. Daniela says:

    I never had a pan pal but do remember thin blue paper and special envelopes that came with it – only for air post! I think that our human need to search for those like us and connect with them was the same then as it is now. The only difference is development, sort of evolution, of devices we use to achieve that goal. Once upon a time anticipation was a part, and not a small part, of such connections … waiting for response. Now days it all happens in seconds … and yet for some reason we seem to have less and less time for each others!

    Thank you for this great post … as you can tell by the length of my comment – it made me think!

    • What a great point you make …. having less and less time for each other in spite of all the easy ways we have to connect. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts … you are a great ‘thinker’! πŸ™‚

  7. Ah, what a nice memory you sparked for me! My grandparents lived in Flushing and so invited us to stay with them and attend The World’s Fair! What a thrill for us! Thanks for reminding me. I don’t recall getting a pen pal there, but did have pen pals through other means – school projects, Girl Scouts. . .

    I do miss that feeling of anticipation waiting for a letter to arrive, or the surprise of receiving one from Gramma unexpectedly.

    • How exciting that your grandparents lived right there for the World’s Fair. That must have been a lot of fun for you. Yes, anticipation is gone … but I do think we have gained a lot. πŸ™‚

  8. Apart from the paper, it was such a thrill to have the Rolls Royce of fountain pens – a Parker – and then you had to fill it with that little lever thing that sucked the ink into the tube… blue or black ink? red was rude, and green was not acceptable either for a ‘proper’ letter !!!
    And you had to empty it before flying, or the ink would leak our and ruin your handbag or clothes…When biros came in we were not allowed to use them at school, as they were considered bad for hand-writing !!!

  9. I never had a pen pal but I know my cousin (exactly the same age as myself) had many. She’s always been the best in our family at communicating. I love the fact that I can connect so quickly and easily with people from around the world but, what it does take out of it, is the mystery and, as you called air mail πŸ™‚ “exotic” nature of it all. I agree, though, that our wonderful new world definitely helps to get people realising that we are all much the same. Similar needs, wishes, hopes. I love it.

    • I agree with you …. although the mystery is gone, it is trumped with the ease and ability to share with thousands of today. Back in those days it was hard to “find” someone in another country to correspond with … unless you were lucky enough to be part of some kind of matching program through scouts or (in my case) the Parker Program. Today, well, here I am chatting with you and we have quite a few miles between us! Love it!

  10. I did have a pen pal when I took first year French. I think we wrote back and forth only two or three times because my French was so bad, and her English was so bad. We never made a real connection. I do remember the thin blue paper.

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