Penpals is a word that suggests a specific era in time; decades back in time, when people wrote with pens and posted actual letters. A time before email and Facebook and WhatsApp. Unlike other kinds of correspondents, penpals were usually people you hadn't met personally, and who often lived in other countries. Back in the pre-internet day, you found them through girls' magazines, or school forums. It was almost exclusively something teenage girls engaged in.
Penpals are having a bit of a moment again, nudged by all that extra time people have had this last year, on account of not being able to go anywhere. American-born Liz Maguire (27), who came to study marketing in Dublin, and now lives here, has accrued an astonishing 80-plus penpals in the last year. One thing that hasn't changed is that all but two of them are female.
"The majority of them are in the US," she says. "Some are in the UK. A handful in France and Germany. "
Maguire found them though a digital platform that was created last year called Penpalooza, by a staff writer for the New Yorker, Rachel Syme. It uses Elfster – a programme used a lot at Christmas time for Kris Kindles – to randomly match people with each other via an algorithm. Some 12,000 people have signed up to date. Word of it spread via Twitter, on @penpalooza.
“The postman knows my house well by now,” she says. (Incidentally, she is the rare interviewee who can recall her Eircode instantly, without having to look it up.) It’s Thursday when we’re talking, and so far that week, she has sent seven letters and received 11. “I keep them all listed in my book,” she explains.
Some of her correspondents, who range in age from early 20s through late 50s, write frequently. Others just once. One correspondent writes 20 page letters akin to short stories, which she saves to read. “My house is still full of glitter from all the Christmas cards,” she says. Maguire has only met one of her many correspondents, but that’s not really the point.
Why does she do it? "It feels nice to spread some joy around the place. I send strangers birthday cards," she explains. For birthdays and Christmas, she seeks out cards on Etsy or Instagram made by Irish designers and independent stationery brands. "I believe in the value of shopping Irish and supporting Irish." For letters, she writes on a legal notepad. She used to use rollerball pen, until her partner gave he a fountain pen at Christmas, so now she writes all the cards and letters in blue ink.
What about the cost of all the cards, not to mention the stamps? “I’m not able to go out to the pub or to restaurants, so I’ve found external ways to spend my pocket money. I have definitely spent money on it. My dad is an accountant, and he is always asking how much I’m spending on it all.”
The earliest thing Maguire recalls getting in the post herself was a card from her grandmother, Gert. “She is a real card sender: Easter, Christmas, birthdays, all of the holidays. She has has the knack of making sure they all arrive on time.
Not all her penpals have kept in touch. It’s in the spirit of the randomness of the contacts: some just send one card or letter and they drop away. Others write regularly, although Maguire won’t reveal about what.
Will the penpal card-writing and letter-writing survive when All This is over? “That’s what a writer working on a novel involving letters contacted me to ask,” she says. “I think it will slow down a bit, and it won’t be the same because we won’t be at home all day, but it will change.”
Maguire believes there is a possibility in creating new kinds of networks of people in the future, who had been corresponding as penpals, but who, when travel restrictions end, will want to meet up in person in different locations around the world. This is what some of her correspondents are telling her. “It’s a new community of people.”
The penpal project is not the only correspondence-based project Maguire is engaged in. She also set up the website fleamarketloveletters.com.
“Since 2017, I have been buying up old letters and diaries from the 1940s.” She posts these letters up on the site. “It’s a history project,” as she puts it.
She buys them on eBay, at fleamarkets and in antique shops. In addition to posting the letters themselves on the site, she also has pieces about preserving old letters, books that feature letters in their plots, letters and love songs – pretty much anything where letters and culture intersect.
I go into the site, and have a random look at a few letters. The viscerality of handwriting is somehow so intimate and moving. One letter was written on Christmas Day, 1944, from the Union Service Men’s Lounge in New York city. From a distance of almost 80 years, the yearning is palpable.
“My Dearest Darling, this is Christmas evening . . . and I am so lonely without you. I just sorta walked around all day in a trance . . .”
What about the ethics of publicly posting formerly private pieces of correspondence on the internet, particularly as many of them are love letters? “If anyone contacted me and said, oh, that’s my grandmother or whatever, I would take them down immediately,” she says. To date, nobody has claimed to be a relative of any of these long ago letter-writers from the 1940s.