BEFORE EMAIL

Before computers and email…a lot of people actually wrote honest-to-goodness letters. To help promote letter-writing amongst pen-pals, there were, in the 1960s through the 1980s, a group of monthly magazines, published by Tower Press, whose primary function was to bring together people (mostly women) who were looking for pen-pals with similar interests. The Tower Press magazine “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” published letters submitted by women who were looking for pen-pals, sometimes from foreign countries, or mothers with small children seeking other mothers with whom they could exchange ideas and find a sympathetic ear. However, if you were looking for a particular lost recipe or an old fondly-remembered cookbook, if you wanted to exchange post cards or stamps, whatever you were looking for—Women’s Circle was there to lend a helping hand. This monthly magazine even included a column for teenagers, called Teensville; girls and boys looking for pen-pals were invited to write a letter and submit a recent photo of themselves. Women’s Circle published the letters. The Exchange Column invited readers from everywhere in the world to write a letter, expressing their interests. Generally, along with your name and address, you included your date of birth and your wedding anniversary date, the names and ages of your children, as well as your hobbies and collections.

In addition to “WOMEN’S CIRCLE”, the Tower Press publishers also published a magazine called “GOOD OLD DAYS” which contained nostalgic photos, poems, drawings, cartoons, ads, songs, and articles. They also published a magazine called “WOMEN’S CIRCLE HOME COOKING” and, for people into sewing and crafts, there were “POPULAR NEEDLEWORK & CRAFTS”, “STITCH ‘N SEW”, “POPULAR HANDICRAFT & HOBBIES”, “AUNT JANE’S SEWING CIRCLE”, and “OLDE TIME NEEDLEWORK PATTERNS & DESIGNS”. Similar to “Women’s Circle” were “Women’s Household” and “Women’s Comfort” magazines.

When I began thinking about those “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” magazines I wondered – What happened to all of those Tower Press publications? An internet search revealed that the original issue of WOMEN’S CIRCLE magazine was published in February, 1960, ending with the March/April, 1997 issue. Tower Press was bought out by House of White Birches; the latter was founded over 50 years ago in New England by two brothers, Ed and Mike Kutlowski, who were pioneers in the magazine industry. The Kutlowskis retired in 1985 and sold their business to printers Carl and Art Muselman. The Muselmans moved the House of White Birches to Berne, their hometown, and the location of their printing company, EP Graphics. HWB currently publishes eight magazines, many of which were launched in the 1970s and are still popular today. Included are “GOOD OLD DAYS” and “HOME COOKING”. “HOME COOKING” appears to be the last remnant of the original Tower Press format of reader submission of favorite recipes. The idea of a magazine devoted primarily to pen-pals appears to have fallen by the wayside, overtaken, perhaps, by today’s computer generated email and chat rooms. (However, I was bemused to discover—in an Internet search on Google.com, an article written by a young woman who happened to discover an old issue of “WOMEN’S HOUSEHOLD” at an antique store. Consequently, she and some friends started up a monthly publication they call “American Homebody” which was based on Women’s Household. The author wrote, “I liked the neighborliness of ‘Women’s Household’ and was intrigued by the way the magazine created a community of like-minded individuals scattered across the country who looked forward each month for articles about women…” So, it seems, the memory—and ideas– of “WOMEN’S HOUSEHOLD” and “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” live on.

Go back with me, in time, and let me share with you how things were before email came along.

I began subscribing to Women’s Circle in the mid 1960s. Specifically, I think I “discovered” WC in 1965. I think I began finding the magazine on the magazine racks of the supermarket where we shopped. Around that same time, I became interested in collecting cookbooks. Simultaneously, a friend of mine told me about a Culinary Arts Institute cookbook on Hungarian cuisine that she was searching for.

“I bet I know where we can find it!” I told her. I wrote a letter to Women’s Circle, asking for the cookbook, offering to pay cash. As an afterthought, I added that I was interested in buying/exchanging for old cookbooks, particularly club-and-church cookbooks. Little did I suspect what an avalanche of mail would fill my mailbox when my letter was published! I received over 250 letters. We purchased several of the Hungarian cookbooks and I began buying/trading for many other cookbooks which formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection. And I have to tell you something that I think was pretty spectacular—I was never “cheated” or short-changed by anyone. Even more spectacular were the friendships that I formed, as a result of that one letter, which still exist to this day.

One of the first letters I received was from another cookbook collector, a woman who lived in Michigan. Betsy and I—both young mothers at the time (now grandmothers)—have remained pen-pals for 45 years, while our children grew up, married, and had children of their own. The first time I met Betsy and her husband, Jim, they drove from Michigan to Cincinnati, where I was visiting my parents, to pick up me and my children, so that we could spend a week visiting them in Michigan. A few years later, my friends repeated the gesture – driving hundreds of miles to Cincinnati to pick us up and then returning us to my parents’ home a week or so later. On one of those trips, I took my younger sister Susie along with us and we all have fond memories of going blueberry picking at a berry farm. We visited the Kellogg factory and went to some of the flea markets where you could find hundreds of club-and-church cookbooks for as little as ten cents each (remember, this was the 1960s!). On one of those visits, I met Betsy’s British pen-pal, Margaret, who was also visiting. We had such a wonderful time together.

Also in 1965, I responded to a letter written to “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” by an Australian woman named Margaret. She was seeking penpals but received such a flood of letters from the USA that she took them to her tennis club, spread them out on a table and said “If anyone would like an American pen-friend, here you are!” A young woman named Eileen—who was, like myself, married to a man named Jim, and—like me—also had a son named Steven—chose my letter. We’ve been corresponding ever since. In 1980, when we were living in Florida, we met Eileen and Jim for the first time and from the time they got off the plane and walked up to us, it was just like greeting an old friend or relative. (We liked—and trusted—them so much that we lent our camper to them to drive around the USA). When they reached Los Angeles, they contacted, and met, friends of ours who lived in the San Fernando Valley. About a year later, our friends from California were visiting us, when the best friends of my Aussie friends’ (who lived in London) contacted us in Miami and paid us a visit. The following year, when my California friends visited London, they paid a return visit to their new London acquaintances. (I hope you have followed all of this. It’s sort of like the begats. One friendship begat another one. Years later, the London couple would immigrate to Australia and we became better friends via email, exchanging recipes and gardening tips.

Another young woman who wrote to me was a housewife/mother who lives near Salem, Oregon. She wrote in response to a letter that I had written to Tower Press, noting that we shared the same birthday. In 1974, Bev & Leroy and their children visited us on their way to Disneyland. In 1978, my husband and children and I drove to Oregon where we visited my pen-pal and her family. I’ve lost count of the number of times they have visited us in California. And yes, we’re still penpals. In 2007, I flew to Portland and they met my flight. We spent a week together, visiting lighthouses – and for our joint birthday, Leroy took us to Three Sisters, Oregon, for the day. It was snowing in the cascades! No snow at lower elevations – we thought it was a good birthday present from the heavens.

Another pen-pal acquired in the 1960s was my friend Penny, who lives in Oklahoma. We first visited Penny and her husband Charles and their three sons in 1971, on our way to Cincinnati for a summer vacation. We spent a night at Penny’s and were sent on our way the next morning with a bagful of her special chocolate chip cookies. What I remember most about that visit was my father’s reaction when we arrived in Cincinnati. He kept asking, “How do you know these people in Oklahoma?” (The concept of pen-pals was a foreign one to both my parents).

Two other pen-pals were acquired when we moved to Florida. Lonesome and homesick, I wrote yet another letter to Women’s Circle, and mentioned my love of Christmas (and preparing for it all year long). One of these was a woman in Louisiana and the other was an elderly widowed lady who lived in my home state of Ohio. We were penpals for 25 years.

The downside to having penpals, if there is a downside, is that sometimes letters stop coming – both of these women had become old and had many health issues…perhaps there is no one left to write to their pals to tell you what had happened to them.

Before everyone owned a computer and Internet services flooded the market – we had Prodigy. The concept of Prodigy, at that time, was to offer bulletin boards to which you could write, asking for friends, recipes, whatever. It was through Prodigy that I became acquainted with my friend Pat and her husband Stan. We met for the first time when Bob & I went to the L.A. County Fair one year. Pat & Stan came to visit us at our motel in Pomona; they lived in nearby Covina. Eventually, Prodigy would be overcome by AOL, Earthlink, Juno—and the dozens of other Internet services which have changed our lives so drastically. I think the one greatest thing about the Internet is that it has brought so many of our family members and friends back together again.

As for “WOMEN’S CIRCLE”—the first food-related articles I sold were to this magazine. It was thrilling to see these published. One included photographs that a photographer friend took for me. Then, in 1977, I went back to work full-time and the Tower Press magazines slipped from my radar. But the friendships forged by these magazines have remained an integral part of my life. Yours too, I hope.

And now we have- the Internet…Facebook and blogs, such as this one of mine, sandychatter. But there is still much to be said for the art of writing letters, of finding letters and cards from all over the USA in your mailbox. Much nicer than finding only bills and flyers in the mailbox! And if you are someone still interested in penpals and actual correspondence, may I suggest Inky Trail News; this is a newsletter, bi-monthly, published by my friend Wendy. You can contact Wendy at http://www.friendship-by-mail.com and might want to send for a sample issue of the newsletter. For people who still appreciate the art of letter writing, this may be just the thing for you.

A few years ago, Wendy put together half a dozen retirees into a Google Retiree group. We were a busy email group the first couple of years but perhaps exhausted topics to write about as the group has tapered off. That being said, two of the women in the group, both Canadians, have become very good friends and the three of us email one another daily.

In 2008, Sharon came to visit me and we did a grand California tour for two weeks, visiting the Redwoods and Yosemite. Then, IN 2009, I visited Sharon in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and had the time of my life meeting her friends and doing all the touristy things one does at Niagara Falls. All because of being penpals!

Another newsletter you may be interested in is PALS OF THE PEN, a quarterly pen pal newsletter (reader letters, their contributions in the way of recipes, nostalgia, tips, poems, health tidbits, etc). It is for USA women readers only and is $10.00 a year. My friend Jackie Barlow offers a back issue as a sample for $1.00. She started the newletter in 1996 for women born in 1938 but never could get a lot of readers born in just that one year. A couple of years ago Jackie decided to open it up to women born anytime in the 1930s, and again didn’t get a lot of new readers. So just a few issues ago she dropped the years and went for “all USA women pen pallers”. If you want a sample copy of Pals of the Pen, send $1.00 for a back issue. A year’s subscription is $10.00. Offer open to USA women only. Write to Jackie Barlow (SS), 67 Aberdeen Circle, Leesburg, FL 34788.

There are undoubtedly other newsletters for those of us who grew up with penpals in our lives. Sometimes penpals come into your life and stay forever while others may come and go. I am reminded of a Vietnamese refugee penpal I had while in high school. She attended a Catholic high school in New York while I attended one in Cincinnati. The nuns offered to exchange names and Anne Nam Hai became my penpal. I lost contact with Anne after graduating from high school. But oh, the joy, over the years, of exchanging letters, recipes, photographs and sometimes small gifts with a penpal far away—email on the internet may fill some of the void but I have to tell you, I still get a thrill finding real letters in my mailbox. And my lady mail carrier – who has only known me for 2 years – knows when I have received a box of cookbooks from my penpal in Michigan and always carries the box up to the door.

Before Email….all we had were letters – and even though I am still an avid letter writer, I have to admit – computers have greatly broadened our horizons.

–Sandra Lee Smith

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2 responses to “BEFORE EMAIL

  1. Gerri Anderson

    U R rite Sandy, letters were great, but I believe emails R here and now. (And then there’s Facebook and Twitter, too.) If someone sends an email, U can reply immediately and not set-aside the letter & maybe forget the questions she asked.
    I have had a penpal for 60 years. Met her @ a beach in Duluth when I was 10 years old and we have corresponded ever since. The only other time I saw her was when we visited them on our honeymoon. (I still have the 1958 newspaper clipping of her in her wedding dress.)

    I love receiving her letters and Xmas pictures, but truly wish she had a computer for more indepth & NOW discussions. We seem to write about 3-4 times a year so alot happens in between that we don’t share w/ each other. My February letter to her was a reply to her Xmas letter & pictures.

    Just an aside, emailing is free, it doesn’t kill trees, & I don’t need a filing cabinet in which to store all the letters. I’m a keeper of everything! (as my house & hard-drive will attest). I’m not exactly in the ‘Hoarder’ category, however . . . . . . .

    • Gerri, The penpals I have had the longest are two I began corresponding with in 1965. One is in Australia and determined never to learn how to write on a computer…the other has email but we do both, write real letters AND sometimes correspond on the computer. There is still something to be said for real LETTERS and CARDS coming in the mail. I know exactly what you mean, though. Much as I love Eileen’s letters and cards, I often wish she had email too. My oldest childhood girlfriend is finally learning how to write emails though! We grew up on the same street. I suspect sometimes that women who have grandchildren – and all the grands have emails, Facebook, twitter – that the grandmas need to get with the program and I bet they catch a lot of flack from the kiddies. I finally got FB because so many of my nieces and nephews are on it.- Sandy

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