How the Pen Pal Came to Be —
The Underrated June 1st Holiday
The relatively newborn prevalence of cell phones, email, and SnapChat alike have decreased face-to-face interaction on an unprecedented scale. Granted, a fair amount of communication throughout history was also not face-to-face, but was facilitated by handwritten letters. Indeed, there was a time when handwritten letters were a primary means of communication—not emojis (believe it or not!). A national holiday that commemorates such a spark in letter exchange is one on June 1st: National Pen Pal Day.
The origin of the pen pal dates back to the 1930s. The term “pen-pal” officially earned a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1931 (“Pen Pal Day”). In 1936, a society was created with the purpose of helping to match individuals with a pen pal, by the name of Student Letter Exchange. This facilitated the formation of new friendships internationally, as well as the exchange of cultures between students (“Pen Pal Day”).
Newspapers and magazines were also a means by which individuals could connect with a pen pal. While direct assistance in finding a pen pal was available for a price, people could also have their details regarding their personality, for example, published in a column with the sole purpose of matching pen pal “pairs”, or they could read the details of others to see if they would be a good match for a pen pal (“Pen Pal Day”). Whether direct or indirect, society facilitated this phenomenon in various ways.
How can having a pen pal mean so much more than simply exchanging letters? Marina Crouse identified 5 different aspects of our lives that are improved by having a pen pal: self-care, friendship, creativity, connectivity, and global understanding (Crouse). Individual growth in these aspects of life as a result of having a pen pal makes sense intuitively, too. The exchange of letters is only at the surface level. You learn to appreciate the time and effort gone into creating the cards, as well as the appreciation of a new friend who may live halfway across the world, someone you would likely never have had the chance to interact with in person.
Letters have historical significance, too. Leslie Markevitch described them as “valuable records that act as time capsules”, and that “they have been used to analyze and discover the personality of some of history’s most notable figures and improve our comprehension of what it was like to be alive during various eras” (Markevitch). Letters can provide a window to moments in the lives of those from history, providing an accurate representation of one’s life that is often a defining characteristic of primary sources.
So, how can you celebrate this June 1st? Of course, if you already have a pen pal, you can write them a letter specifically celebrating the occasion. If you haven’t yet connected with a pen pal, the holiday could be the perfect opportunity to start! And as Leslie Markevitch describes, “maybe years from now your letter will end up crossing the path of someone hoping to understand more about living in the 21st century” (Markevitch). It’s incredible to think that our letters can act as historical sources for generations to come, acting as a window to what our lives entail today.
Crouse, Marina. “5 Reasons To Celebrate National Pen Pal Day.” Gentwenty. Published 1 June 2019. gentwenty.com/national-pen-pal-day/. Accessed 31 May 2021.
Markevitch, Leslie. “Celebrating National Pen Pal Day!” Bucknell University Press. Published 7 June 2016. upress.blogs.bucknell.edu/2016/06/07/celebrating-national-pen-pal-day/. Accessed 31 May 2021.
“Pen Pal Day – June 1, 2021.” National Today. Published 15 May 2021.
nationaltoday.com/pen-pal-day/. Accessed 31 May 2021.