Dear Penpalooza Members,*
(*if you are getting this, then you either subscribed here, or signed up for the #Penpalooza letter writing project on Elfster. If you no longer wish to receive this letter, which comes every two weeks and is free, you can simply unsubscribe. No hard feelings!).
In 1867, the New York-based publisher Dick & Fitzgerald put out a chunky little book called “Frost’s Original Letter Writer” by an author who went by the mysterious pen name “S.A. Frost.” The book, an exhaustive, punctilious guide to all things having to do with written correspondences, was the work of an enterprising woman named Sarah Annie Frost (and who later went by Mrs. Sarah Annie Frost-Shields) who built a tiny Victorian publishing empire for herself by pumping out several volumes of lifestyle literature. In 1869, three years before Emily Post was even born, Frost wrote “Frost’s Laws and by-Laws of American Society,” in which she laid out concise, confident, and often fully nutball etiquette tips for every situation from baptisms to bruncheons to bathtime (my favorite of her absurdist bathing rules: “cold water refreshes and invigorates but does not cleanse; those persons, therefore, who daily use a cold bath in the morning should frequently use a warm one at night.”). The Victorians were big on protocol; they never met a draconian dictum that didn’t excite them a bit in the bloomers and leave them feeling like coloring just barely inside the lines could be a form of ecstatic experience. Tell a Victorian that they have to learn six new ways to hold a teacup by sundown, and they’ll say don’t threaten me with a good time. Sarah Annie Frost was more than happy to serve as a kind of marmish domme of the domestic sphere, rapping the collective knuckles of those who had not yet learned that the best way to wash the hair is with a slurry of raw egg yolk and lime juice (because who doesn’t want their scalp to smell like day-old custard?).
I came across a copy of “Frost’s Original Letter Writer” online earlier this summer, when I had just started to write a lot of letters myself on my hideous, beige beater electric typewriter from the 1980s (she’s a Nakajima AE-710 and I love her very much) and I wanted to look into the history of the form. The guide is hilariously outdated (I don’t imagine many people today using the form letter for “answering an advertisement for a governess”) but some of it holds up, such as her advice that using quotations or song lyrics in a letter feels twee and cheap (“Quotations should be used as a very rare luxury, as they are apt to give an appearance of pedantry and studied effect”) or her choice of writing instruments (“Never write in pencil. It is always careless, often rude.”). Also, if you want to know how to send a truly creepy request to your fiancé asking for a lock of her hair while calling her a “stingy little pet,” well, Frost has that covered too:
I share with you the story of S.A. Frost (and I’ll post my favorite excerpt at the end of this letter, a truly deranged and bitchy form letter where a man advises a younger acquaintance to ditch a friend) to say that for as long as people have been flinging paper back and forth through the postal service, people have been wondering if they are doing it right. Whole cottage industries have sprung up like barnacles riding the whale that is the daily mail, offering tips and tricks about how to open a letter (is it “dear”? Do people even say “dear” anymore in this year of our lord 2020?) and how to close one (is XOXO too much? Too Gossip Girl? Does “warmly” seem too tryhard or just tryhard enough? Would writing “all best” basically mark me as a sociopath??). Letters are such an intimate medium; they are meant for an audience of one. But also, that one person will be spending a lot of time with whatever you send, poring over it with a hot beverage in hand. It makes sense that there is such public hand-wringing about such a private form. You want your letter to arrive at its destination, sure, but you also want it to really arrive. You want it to land. And so people like Sarah Frost rush in to fill the void and the shaking hand over the blank page, ensuring the nervous nellies that even a lackluster letter in the post is better than no letter at all.
I am no Sarah Annie Frost-Shields. I have no hard-and-fast correspondence rules for you. I barely have any rules at all, except that you should apply the proper postage to your letters and learn how and when to use non-machinable stamps. But this newsletter is intended to be a kind of nouveau Frost’s Letter Writer of sorts, a twice-a-month companion to the #Penpalooza project that will be an extension of the letter writing universe you have all been creating together for the past few months. A note on the origins of #Penpalooza: it started on a whim. You can hear the whole story, which became an illustrated piece in Pop-Up Magazine, here, but this is the short version: in April, I was doing a lot of fretting inside my one-bedroom apartment in New York City, hearing the ambulance sirens wail incessantly down the street (this was during the time when the Javits Center was still a field hospital). I felt close to the city, but also far away from it; everything was closed, everyone was unsure of what was coming next. So I started typing out letters, first to friends and family, then to whoever responded to a one-off Instagram story (I’m still writing to that first crop of takers, late into the night, months later, with two shoeboxes full of postcards and bubble mailers and notecards that have washed up in my Brooklyn vestibule like bottles borne across the high seas). Then, after learning through a tossed-off Twitter inquiry that some of you were also feeling a bit adrift in the middle of this disorienting, maddening year, I figured we should start writing to each other. It had been such a balm for me, the metronomic click-clacking of the keys. I had no idea how it would work -- someone tipped me off to Elfster, and we bent the algorithmic rules of the Secret Santa software to launch this exchange (with lots of help and 2am support messages from their tireless technical support person, Meghan, who you should know loves #Penpalooza and has been nothing but gracious and enthusiastic about a project that regularly crashed their servers for the first month it was up). We are the largest exchange the site has ever handled -- with over 7000 people in the group now -- and they had to alter their tech just to accommodate us; if that is not a tiny miracle in a bad year, I don’t know what is.
What I want to say first, now that I have you, is: thank you. Thank you all, so much, for taking part in this project, and with such gusto and guile. Thousands of you have sent letters to total strangers, often across oceans and deserts and borders (and sometimes, by random chance, just around the corner), and you have just kept right on doing it. Some of you have sent local honey and pressed flowers. Some of you have shipped perfume samples and paperback books. Some of you have mailed entire boxes of farm fresh eggs through the USPS and they made it in one-piece without cracking. Over a thousand of you have requested an extra pen pal (which you can do too, if you haven’t yet, by emailing email@example.com), and hundreds of you have asked for several to write to at once. I’ve been so heartened to see the way that, on Twitter, when someone posts to the hashtag that they were ghosted by their pen pal, about a dozen of you swarm in to scoop them up and shower them with mail like guardian carrier pigeons. This thing has developed a life and a language of its own -- if you scan the #penpalooza tag, you’ll see letter inspo galore, from creative calligraphy to vintage stamps to embossing techniques -- and truly, as the kids say, you do love to see it. I had no idea what #penpalooza could be, but I am so excited by what it is, and also where it is going.
Letter writing can be lonely business, especially during these times. This newsletter is an attempt to bring us all a little closer together: to highlight some of the correspondences that have popped up as a result of these past months, to look back at some notable letters of the past, to offer up some writing prompts to help you get past any stuck-ness you might feel when settling in to answer your mail, to share some tips and hacks that I and other #penpalooza members have learned along the way to spice up letters or ensure they arrive, to revel in various paper crafts and hand-lettering techniques and other attendant arts that come along with getting into correspondence, and, for those who have the shoppies and use online purchases to offer up a jolt of seratonin just to feel something right now (welcome to the club), some hot leads on stationery and stickers and wax seals and stamps and little delights that lay flat and can be tucked into envelopes. The updates won’t all be this long! But I just wanted to give you a sense of what you are in for.
Each newsletter will be different! Sometimes there will be historical asides. Sometimes there will be lessons in how to make mail art. Sometimes there will be encouragement to pay it forward with letter writing campaigns to seniors and the incarcerated. Sometimes we will interview members of the #Penpalooza community, and that is what is going to happen….RIGHT NOW.
The lovely Liz Maguire, who you might know on Twitter as @thelizmaguire, is an American living in Dublin, Ireland who works in marketing and also runs an amazing Instagram account dedicated to collecting old love letters from flea markets. Liz is not only an active #penpalooza booster (if you’ve ever spent time on the tag, you’ll know she sends notes of encouragement most mornings to fellow letter-writers), but she is becoming a more formal part of this project -- starting next week, Liz is going to be helping me run what has become sort of a logistical behemoth. She’ll be helping to answer emails, set you up with extra matches, etc. And she’ll be contributing to this newsletter from time to time. SO, lets meet Liz!
Hi Liz! Tell me about one or two of your pen pals -- what are some of your favorite letters you have gotten?
I would love to! My longest-running penpals are Lauren and Renée from the U.S. We have been exchanging letters since July. Lauren sends these letters that read like stories and Renée writes beautifully as well, often including her one-of-a-kind hand-drawn artwork. When those beauts come in the front door I stop everything! Bonus for letter nerds: there's lovely Rebecca in the U.K. who got in touch when she heard about my project Flea Market Love Letters and wrote an incredible first letter all about a found letter she has in her collection. Now she's collecting vintage postcards and has fun looking up the genealogies of the senders from a hundred years ago. I love hearing about her discoveries.
You run an Instagram devoted to vintage love letters you find at flea markets. How did this project begin, and how has it evolved over time?
Flea Market Love Letters is an online archive of nearly 300 vintage letters dating from World War I and World War II. I am the creator and curator which means I collect, transcribe, photograph, and post the letters. Over the last three years, the project has grown into a fantastic community of letter lovers and vintage collectors. I believe everyone has a story and Flea Market Love Letters is a space to share and celebrate the power of letters in history. In 2020 I started the 'Write More Letters' Project. 100% of the proceeds from the masks, mugs, shirts, and totes go to charity. Interested readers can find us on Instagram or check out the project site here.
What do you get out of #Penpalooza?
#Penpalooza as a community is a support network, a creative outlet, and a reason to look forward to starting each day. I moved with my boyfriend Sam to Dublin, Ireland in 2018 from the East Coast of the U.S. We're not entirely sure when we'll get back to the U.S. or have visitors from home again. In a year where things could have gotten very dark #penpalooza means that I am writing and making friendships around the world which otherwise would never have happened. It also means that I am now on a first-name basis with the mailman. Shout out to the mail service providers that have made #penpalooza possible.
What has writing your own letters and collecting those of the past taught you about mail? Why do you think we still send letters, even with all the modern technology available to us?
The minute you write a letter it becomes history. Write about what you're watching, listening to, feeling, etc. Write about world events like the lockdowns or elections. I may preserve letters as a hobby but I don't pretend that everyone has the time or space or even interest to keep every letter they receive. But for those that do these #penpalooza letters will forever be first-hand proof we made it out.
What is your #penpalooza style? Do you prefer letters or postcards?
My style is always developing! I use the same letter pad for all my correspondence but decorate with stickers to spice things up. Recently I received a selection box of tea bags so I have been slipping those, along with a few sheets of notepaper and extra stickers into my letters. Little treats for penpals are fun to track down and send out. I can't say enough about postcards -- if you are busy but want to let your penpal know you're thinking of them try dropping them a postcard. It's a bit like a text message but way cooler.
Tell us a hot stationery tip!
This one is a bit old school but my roots are vintage. Back in World War Two, it was a trend for sweethearts to create codes in their letters. Turning a stamp upside down for instance could represent "I Love You". We think of envelope decorating as a modern adaption to letter writing but it turns out letter senders have been creative with their envelopes all along!
AND NOW, THE SHOPPIES SECTION:
Some of you are just here to find out about new stationery and other letter-adjacent accoutrement to buy, and I see it — and I respect it. I will tell you that the next issue, coming December 12, is going to be The Big End Of Year Totally Indulgent Penpalooza Gift Guide (which, let’s face it, will mostly be full of gifts you can give yourself). So if you are here for shopping tips, know that there is an avalanche coming. But for now...a few inspirations (with a hat tip to Diana Vreeland):
Why don’t you….
⧫ Get into pre-made wax seals? The artist Kathryn Hastings finds antique, one-of-a-kind seals and uses them to stamp out gorgeous globs of wax that she attaches to super-strong adhesive that you can plop on your envelopes without all the muss and fuss of sticky burnt fingers.
⧫ Spend some time on the Pepin Press site? This was the stationery that got me into fine letter writing papers. If you see the box you like there, you can usually find it easily by searching around for it online. The letter writing sets are my favorite -- they come with writing paper, ornate envelopes, and matching sticker seals. Right now, the independent stationer The Penny Post out of Alexandria, VA has this maps set for sale. As always, shop indie when you can :).
⧫ Subscribe to a sticker club? You are going to have to adorn those letters with something. Joining the Violette Club is one of the best 2am insomnia decisions I made this year -- every month a fat envelope of charming stickers featuring tropical birds and big lush flowers and fey little Victorian girls pushing hoops arrives on my doorstep. It has big ten-year-old-who-was-into-gingham-dresses energy, but hey, I’m assuming that most of us can relate to this.
⧫ Start writing on vintage hotel stationery? EBay is a font of treasures, but where it really shines is when it comes to kitschy paper that people swiped from hotel rooms. My favorites tend to come out of Florida (where they seem to love hot pink paper) or from art deco auberges in France. You have to be a savvy diver to find deals, but there are joys to behold if you take the plunge. Go fish.
⧫ Drink your coffee out of an official #Penpalooza mug, made by the great Sara Crump?
And finally….a short prompt!
Don’t know what to include in your next letter? How about a Pen Pal Q&A? Here’s how to make one: Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write a series of questions on one side, and then repeat them on the other. (i.e.: What’s your favorite salty snack? What song can you listen to 100 times in a row? What’s the worst birthday you ever had?) Answer the questions yourself, and leave the other side blank for your pen pal to answer, tear off, and send back. It has all the thrills of passing a note in middle school without the potential for total embarassment.
AND THAT’S IT FOR ISSUE ONE. See you in two weeks. I’ll leave you with another of Sarah Frost’s bonkers form letters. You can certainly do better than Ernst. Now, go lick a stamp.
XOXO - Rachel
PS: Penpalooza has an official website now!