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Dear Pen Pal: New Letter from a Lost Art

Sit down and think of a person. Ask questions. Tell them about your day. Fold the paper. Slide it into an envelope. Lick the glue seam. Make a face at the taste. Write the address on the front. And send. It’s an art that until recently seemed to have lost its special touch among cell phone calls, text messages, social media posts. We no longer need to hand-write long declarations to our “dearly beloved” and wait weeks for a response. We can pull our phone out of our pocket, tap it out with our thumbs, and have an answer almost instantly. 

The hand-written craft has picked up a few unsavory nicknames over the years, including “snail mail.” Not too appetizing. And yet, amid the current pandemic, states across the country going in and out of lockdowns and various open procedures, many avoiding transportation and unnecessary contact with a friend, the letter has prevailed as a lost art. The fondness in their words carries over pages and continents, connecting people with the ones they love in a new kind of travel. 

“I feel like letter writing is a lot more personal than forms of online communication,” says Adam Powers a sophomore Creative Writing major at Emerson College, especially if they’re handwritten. “[It] feels like the person you’re corresponding with is quite literally sending you a piece of themself. It’s very comforting.

Many Americans have been doing the same, staying connected through letters throughout the pandemic. Greeting card sales from Paper Source Inc. have soared 1,200% since the beginning of the pandemic, CEO Winne Park told Bloomberg. Postcards, notes, and long-form letters have all been frequent correspondents since March when the country entered a state of emergency. Additionally, the US Postal Service has seen a serious uptick in stamp sales, a spokesman told Newsweek

“I like that you never know quite when they’ll show up. It’s such a nice surprise,” Powers says, bringing brightness to his day and helping with the depression. “And I like having correspondence that I can keep.”

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Beginning with quarantine in March, Powers started writing letters to friends and family, as a way to stay connected when forcibly removed from their normal routines and support community.

“I was—am—very depressed and had a hard time picking up the phone to call or text people I missed, so instead I tried to make a habit of writing them,” Powers says, adding stickers and fancy wax seals to each letter and its envelopes, to add a special touch, the print of the seal matching his pet pigeon. “The only thing I really dislike about it is having to buy stamps and other materials,” Powers adds, a bit ironic considering her works at a letter and stationery company.

Working at Paper Source, a store focused on cards, stationery, gift wrap, and miscellaneous paper good, Powers says that the environment has definitely changed during and after the pandemic. “I have noticed more and more young people coming in for postcards,” Powers says, “whereas last year was mostly older folks.” 

Letter drafting is very similar to journaling but instead written to someone you love. Which might make it even a bit more personal. The two stimulate the same part of the brain and can provide relief to things like anxiety, depression, and general stress. According to researchers at the University of Rochester, journaling is great for prioritizing problems, getting to know yourself, and decompressing. 

“It’s a good time to bring people joy and bring a healthy habit,” says Malka Klein, a professional calligraphy artist in Israel. “You know, there are so many health benefits to sitting down and writing a letter. You know, sitting down and just thinking ‘what am I thinking?’” Sitting down pushes you to be more mindful and aware of yourself, she says, to evaluate yourself and your relationships at a closer level. 

Always in love with handwriting and calligraphy, her grandmother sending her frequent printed letters as a child, Klein started her calligraphy business in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit. She loves holding onto materials and “recycling beautiful things” to use for envelopes and letters to send to people. Stationary can be expensive to import to Israel so “it’s easier to just use what I already have,” painting and drawing and writing to create unique pieces of art. Her company specialized in wedding invitations and printed graphic content, which hit a bit of a bump after the country’s initial lockdown. But with the increasing interest in letter-writing and creative stress-relievers during the pandemic, Klein began teaching at a letter-writing camp and beginning a 100-letters-in-100-days challenge. 

As part of the online camp, participants sent each other envelopes and calligraphy crafts. But as Klein began the camp, she stumbled upon some letters in her craft drawers from friends she noticed she didn’t answer. “So, I basically said ‘wait a minute, I am about to write to random strangers I’ve never met letters for this envelope exchange, but what about the people that are nearest and dearest to me?” she remembers asking herself. “Like when’s the last time I wrote my husband a letter? When did I write my mom a letter?” 

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So, she went back to her roots, to writing to her grandmother in the states, with hand-made stationery decorated in her own watercolor and written with her own calligraphy. 

 “I needed to go back to where I came from and use this medium—that I use now for clients to bring them joy and you know authenticity, hand-made beauty—I need to do that for the people that I love, for my own conscience, but also because I know it’s nice, especially now, when we can’t see them.”

Living away from her relatives has been the norm since moving to Israel after college, but not being able to visit and to see each other has been a lot different. “My parents still live in the states. My grandmother still lives in the states. You know, you can’t just hop around [between countries anymore].”

So, during the pandemic, she has found refuge in her business and in her art. “It’s a fun alternative,” Klein says. “It’s like an extension of you traveling because you can’t physically travel.” 

“Writing, and especially calligraphy, is so intentional and slow. If you rush it, it won’t be as beautiful. You make mistakes. The ink will splatter. And so it makes you do all the things that in our modern world we perhaps don’t do and to think ‘why do I appreciate this relationship?’”

The postal service has become more revered over social media and mainstream content throughout the pandemic, as USPS finances come into question and mail-order products become more popular. Everything from written letters and grocery services to voting by mail is delivered by the USPS. It connects us in ways that we had underappreciated over the years, opening a door to the past in a way completely unimagined until now. Because when life hands you a pandemic and a bunch of snail mail, one can simply make escargot. 

 

Lilli is a Co-Campus Correspondent for Her Campus at Emerson. This is her second year as a member of Her Campus and second as a Campus Trendsetter. Lilli is a senior journalism major at Emerson College with minors in fiction and women, gender, and sexuality studies. She's a bubbly Aries who loves to keep a busy schedule, but she always leaves enough room for food, friends, and curling up to watch HGTV. Follow her on Instagram @lillircohen
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