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 people, men and women alike, 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 and it seems to me that I began finding the magazine on the magazine racks of the supermarket where we shopped, in North Hollywood. 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 both grandmothers)—have remained pen-pals for over 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 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.
Around this same time, I responded to a letter written to “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” by an Australian woman (whose name I no longer can recall). She received such a flood of letters from the USA that she took them to her tennis club, spread them out 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 them our camper 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).
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. Bev and I became penpals in 1974. In 1978, my husband and children and I drove to Oregon where we met my pen-pal and her family. I’ve lost count of the number of times they have visited us in California.
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 back 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. “How,” he asked, “is it that 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 is a woman was in Louisiana and the other was an elderly widowed lady who lived in my home state of Ohio. Sadly, they are no longer writing letters. We kept going for 25 years though.
When I began discussing the old Tower Press magazines to Sue Erwin, who published the Cook Book Collectors Exchange for over a decade, she said she had some boxes of the old magazines in her garage and would send some of them to me. “Remember Terri Quillen?” she asked, “She was my co-editor….(we) got acquainted in the Women’s Household magazine…”
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. And every so often, when I mention “Women’s Circle” or “Women’s Household” it strikes a chord with someone, somewhere. More than anything I think those years of penpal magazines were also a time of innocence. We thought nothing of writing our birthdates, anniversary dates, names, addresses and other personal information—all in the hopes of finding penpals who shared your interest. Now identity theft and other hazards have made it risky to share too much personal interest with strangers. What a pity!
As for me, I am fortunate that some of the very first friendships forged with penpals as long ago as 1965 are still penpals today. But, thanks to the internet, many new ones have come along too! You know, there are still a lot of us who enjoy writing letters (or typing them on the computer) and having friend- by-mail throughout the world.
–Sandra Lee Smith