Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the joys and memories of having a pen pal when you were growing up. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
Did you write to a pen pal growing up? Helping match children with pen pals was one way teachers taught students how to write. Maybe you had a pen pal from a different country and that pen pal’s teacher was hoping your letters would encourage them to perfect their English.
Whatever reason you were matched with a pen pal, chances are it allowed you to make a new friend while also learning about letter writing, geography, and more.
Writing to a pen pal is one way to help kids learn about the world and people living in different countries. A pen pal is one experience that many of us share. The idea of writing a letter to a stranger in an effort to make friends seems to stem from at least the early 20th century. However, while maybe not referred to as “pen pals,” earlier time periods may have also included letter writing to strangers as a token of friendship.
Pen Pals in the Newspaper
There are several ways a child may have found a pen pal. Aside from being assigned one at school, children may have found someone to exchange letters with via a magazine, the newspaper, or even a company specializing in matching letter writers. Historical newspapers show examples in the early 1920s of enquiries written to the children’s section of the newspaper in hopes of meeting a pen pal or two.
Starting in 1924, Aunt Jane’s Letter Club in the Times-Picayune was one place young people could write in with their information in hopes of finding the perfect pen pal. Young newspaper letter writers were referred to as “Aunt Jane’s” nieces and nephews. Not all pen pal hopefuls were younger children. In some cases, the hopeful pen pal was a teenager, as shown in the following request from 16-year-old Barbara Sowell, who was looking for a pen pal aged 16 to 20 in 1929.
Aunt Jane’s column reached young people beyond Louisiana. This 1963 Aunt Jane column includes information about writing to a Japanese pen pal.
Aunt Jane’s columns can be a surprisingly rich genealogical source. This full-page example from 1962 shows children’s pen pal requests that include their names, addresses, and in some cases, their photo.
These letters provide personal details about the letter writer, promises to write regularly, and the reason for wanting a pen pal. Reasons include earning a girl scout pen pal badge, wanting to write a child in a foreign country, making a new friend, and in the case of 8-year-old Ruben St. Germaine, his mom had belonged to the letter club as a young girl.
The Times-Picayune wasn’t the only newspaper that used its children’s section to match up potential pen pals. This list of interested letter writers is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Pen Pals via a World’s Fair
I asked my Facebook friends about their pen pal experiences, and it was a lot of fun to read comments by those who had had a pen pal, and in some cases, were still corresponding decades after they started.
One unique pen pal experience was one that my friend, librarian Joy Kestenbaum, told me about. She met a pen pal via the Parker Pen Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was described in this way in an online article:
“Furthering the Fair’s theme of Peace through Understanding, and in cooperation with People-to-People Inc., headed by former President Eisenhower, the company supplies any interested visitor with a form on which he may fill in his name, address, age and his interests. A computer matches this information with the data on participants abroad, and within seconds supplies the name and address of a foreign pen friend on a special overseas mailer.”*
Imagine having a computer in 1964 match you with a pen pal! Joy went to the World’s Fair and was able to connect with a pen pal from the Netherlands. According to this 1965 newspaper article, the Parker Pen Co. had matched over a million “pen-friends.”
Have You Met Your Pen Pal in Real Life?
Pen pals may not just be relegated to letter writings. As a child, I had an Austrian pen pal whom I “met” online a few years back via Facebook. When I asked Facebook friends about pen pals, a few mentioned meeting their pen pals in real life.
Several newspaper articles I found documented the in-person meeting of pen pals. One example is this one from a 1949 Dallas, Texas, newspaper that spotlights a Dallas woman, Joyce, and her English pen pal, Margaret. The two women had been writing bi-monthly for 11 years. The article includes information about Margaret’s World War II service in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Navy Service).
When I asked my Facebook friends about their experience with pen pals, it led to a lively discussion and fond memories as people recounted their experiences. Pen pals provide an opportunity to learn more about a different place, make friends, and network.
Did you have a pen-pal growing up? What’s the story of that friendship? Please let us know in the comments section below.
(*) “Parker Pen,” The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (https://www.worldsfairphotos.com/nywf64/parker-pen.htm?fbclid=IwAR2K7unNm6-uxLPH0-thcwSbyICGKwSPgLda-2FeehLTQow5262rUPK26_c: accessed 31 May 2021).
Note: the pen pal letter shown in the banner is to Melissa Edwards from her Korean pen pal. Courtesy of Melissa Edwards.