While in quarantine, embark on a “mail mission” for cancer patients, meet a new pen pal or just craft sincere artifacts with ink & paper

Pick up that pen and get writing! (Image via Johanna Hickle)

In a world of overnight shipping and instant emails, we deliver both information and physical items with swift efficiency. Yet in spite of our many technological innovations, the craft of letter writing still hasn’t gone the way of messenger pigeons or Morse code. In fact, the slow art of writing out correspondence by hand has only gained traction in recent years, as cultural trends such as letter writing socials and mail art have taken off.

So why revamp our paper-rich past into a modern pastime? In a lightning-fast world, we desperately need more quiet, intentional moments. “You’re doing this thing that is joyful and slow-paced and thoughtful,” notes Carrye De Mers, head of Coastside Letter Writers Society in Half Moon Bay (one of seventy worldwide groups united under the Directory of Letter Writing Societies). “Expressing connection to another person through mail is a positive action we can take when times are questionable or difficult,” she continues.

You’ve got mail! (Image via Unsplash creative commons)

On that note, it’s also a quarantine-friendly activity. “A letter is in fact the only device for combining solitude and good company,” De Mers says, sharing a favorite quote by historian Jacques Barzun. It’s an activity that allows us to get creative and meditative while also expressing kind thoughts and gratitude to loved ones. Really, what better way to make the most of this downtime?

Although the COVID-19 shelter-in-place has kept the Coastside Letter Writers Society from their typical rendezvous at the Half Moon Bay Library (fittingly another place that celebrates the physical written word), De Mers has been considering possible alternatives — a virtual meetup with members over Zoom or a “mail mission” to send words of encouragement to isolated elders. (Check her Instagram for updates.)

Of course, all considerations of collective quarantine aside, April is in fact National Letter Writing month. So read up on our local hobbyist’s insights on a nationwide paper and pen pastime, then check out her suggestions for sending friends creative “thinking of you” notes.

(Just avoid licking those envelopes.)

Mail artists showcasing their unique flare. Clockwise from top left: @papershelter, @parceltongue, @parceltongue, @pamelaartsinsf, @snailmailmummy

Why email will never fully replace snail mail

In a screen-centric society, letter writing draws us back into the tactile world. “There is something a little clinical or detached when you read an email,” De Mers notes. “Fonts, different font sizes, or emojis can only do so much.”

In contrast, the modern letter sheds the need to get across practical details, instructions and scheduling. It’s much more relational. “It’s different — having a tangible item,” she says. “Seeing somebody’s handwriting is very personal.”

Ready to make it rain paper? Join in a mail shower with More Love Letters. (Image via More Love Letters on Instagram)

In this regard, De Mers suggests that deep connections have never been something to rush. Because really… would you rather receive a love letter or a love email? A birthday card with a llama or a two-word Facebook post on your wall?

Beyond these reasons, letters are artifacts. As it undergoes the delivery process, an envelope collects wear and tear and stamped postmarks (or as De Mers refers to them, “journey marks”). Additionally, it’s an object with memories attached to it. All these factors impart a weightiness. “Emails exist on a server,” she explains. “Even if I delete it, depending on what I use, I can recover it. It’s permanent.” Paper, on the other hand, takes mindful preservation, increasing its value.

One of De Mers’ most cherished cards is one sent from her dad before he suddenly passed away. “It wasn’t even a birthday card,” she recalls fondly. “It’s really cute… because my dad isn’t sappy, but he sent me this really sappy card.”

Rediscover cursive, find a pen pal… mail a coconut?

Inspired? There are a considerable number of niches that mail hobbyists enjoy.

One example of “naked mail.” Apparently, you *can* post a coconut. (Image via heybattabatta)

Some focus on one specific letter element like postage or fountain pens and calligraphy… while others delight in the “naked mail” challenge (finding items that can be sent without packaging). De Mers herself embellishes cards and envelopes with rubber stamps, a craft with nearly endless possibilities. “There’s ink pads and different kinds of ink. There’s all kinds of embossing powder, and all kinds of ways to use embossing powder. It goes on. It’s a rabbit hole.”

“They have a certain style,” De Mers says of the way each individual packages their writing with visually vibrant cards and envelopes. “And people change or they evolve or they try something new — but I can usually tell, when I get a piece of mail, (before I even look at the return mark) who it’s from.” Take one of the society’s members who identifies her favorite color as glitter, for instance. Her cards are “highly decorative, super happy, really sign-y,” De Mers notes. “I can always tell when things come to me that are hers!”

Most ornamental of all is mail art. Letters might by covered in stickers, coated in doodles, or clad in collages of vintage book pages and recycled images. The movement has gained quite the Instagram following. “The visual is front and center,” De Mers observes.

Another type of mail enthusiast focuses on the letter’s message. Pen pal-oriented organizations like League of Extraordinary Penpals or the coronavirus-inspired Shut in Social Club pairs writers for correspondence. Other groups rally around “mail missions,” uniting forces to send love and support by post.

Some mail art from our neighbors over at the Sacramento Snail Mail Society. (Image via Instagram)

While the Coastside Letter Writers Society has sent messages voicing congratulations to their area’s retiring postmaster general as well as compassion for those devastated by the Christchurch mosque shootings, other groups are devoted entirely to mail showers. Girls Love Mail supports women hearing a breast cancer diagnosis for the first time. Others rally around service members. “There was a huge push in February for a veteran who wanted valentines for Valentine’s Day,” she says. “He got boxes full.”

So dust off those postage stamps, design an envelope… and get writing.

Inspiration (five Instagram mail artists)

Other Resources To Check Out

  • Mail art tutorial by Karen Tremblay: A demonstration on how to create artistic vintage envelopes.
  • Parcel Ghost: An adorable character created by a former post office employee to teach kids about the postal service.
  • The Postal Museum: Offers a mini virtual tour celebrating women who have worked in the post office. It also shares a fascinating write-up on the Tolhurst Envelopes (a famous collection of mail art from the early 1900s).

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Johanna Hickle Profile Photo

Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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