Receiving a handwritten letter might be rare these days, but for past generations of young people, getting a pen pal was part of growing up.
Wendy Jones, who lives in Brisbane, started writing to her pen pal, Anna, when she was 11.
“My dad always had a thing about World Expos, so when it came to Brisbane in 1988 he bought a family pass for us,” Wendy says.
While waiting in a line, Wendy noticed a machine that was offering to match people up with an international pen pal.
“It asked your name, age group, and hobbies, and then the machine spat out a card promising to connect you with someone else also looking for a pen pal,” she says.
At the time, Anna and Wendy shared a love of collecting novelty erasers so this could have been the key to their pairing.
A bit of background here: this tradition Wendy is describing started at the New York World Fair in 1964.
The Parker Pen pavilion offered a similar automated pen pal matching service.
Even further back, the first pen pal organisation opened in 1936 and was called the Student Letter Exchange.
Its founder was a teacher who decided that young people writing letters to students from other countries could stimulate better understanding between cultures.
A few years earlier, in 1931, the term “pen pal” entered the Oxford Dictionary.
“A few weeks later, I remember my Mum picking me up from school and there was a letter sitting on the dashboard of the car,” Wendy says.
It was from Anna, an 11-year-old girl who lived in the UK.
“For the first 20 years, it was handwritten letters and then we moved to email and Facebook messenger,” she says.
In 2000, after 12 years of writing to each other, Wendy and Anna met for the first time in England.
“I couldn’t wait to hug her because, despite never meeting, we knew so much about each other,” she says.
Six decades and going strong
Wendy and Anna’s 35 years of correspondence is impressive but Annette, a caller to ABC Radio Brisbane, has been writing to her pen pal in Malaysia for 60 years.
“In my first year of high school, there was the opportunity to connect with a pen pal, so I put my name down,” Annette says.
“A couple of months later, I got this letter from Malaysia — that was in 1963 — and we’ve been writing ever since.”
Annette’s first trip outside of Australia was in 1992 to visit her pen pal.
“I tell you what, it was a culture shock, wow,” she says.
A boy in Brisbane and a girl in Denmark
Peter was a nine-year-old scout when he stared writing to his pen pal.
“It was the 1970s and we got a visit from a Danish scout master who asked if anyone wanted a pen pal,” Peter says.
“About two months later I get a letter from a girl in Denmark and we’ve been in contact ever since.”
There was a bit of romance in the beginning but Peter had his dreams crushed when she finally came to visit him in Brisbane.
“I got home from work and there were two backpacks on the verandah … she had brought her boyfriend; I was gutted,” Peter says.
It’s now been 45 years since they first exchanged letters and the pair have met several times in Australia and Denmark.
From pen pals to spouses
Brisbane’s Expo 88 brought Wendy and Anna together, but the 1970 Osaka World Expo in Japan played an even more important role in Wendy’s family.
“My dad was lining up at the Russian pavilion when he met my mother and her sister and asked them to meet him the next day,” Wendy says.
The lunch was a success but, initially, it was her mum’s sister who agreed to be pen pals.
“My mum’s sister actually had a boyfriend, so my mum pretended to be my sister and started writing letters to my dad,” Wendy says.
“Eventually he clued on to who was writing the letters and my dad ended up visiting her in Japan.”
After a few more trips back and forth, Nev and Tomomi realised they were in love.
“She moved from Nagano to Toowoomba, leaving her large family behind in Japan,” Wendy says.
“My mother didn’t speak much English, so to begin with they used a dictionary to communicate.”
Last year Nev and Tomomi celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“My mum is now more Australian than my dad — she loves vegemite, the Broncos, and is the Toowoomba champion for lawn bowls,” Wendy says.
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