December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Pen pals – making friends pre-digital

2 min read
In an age before social media, dating apps and mass travel, Pen Pals was how we found out about far off exotic parts of the world
Pen Pal

Once upon a time, long ago, we wrote letters to each other. Why? Because there was no Facebook, Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp and the only Telegram was something you sent from the Post Office long distance. And to make friends around the world, you answered classified ads to get Pen Pals.

That thought alone would terrify most parents today. We automatically think of the risks of grooming and being lured to a destination and something awful happening. And undoubtedly such things did happen in the 1970s and 1980s. But equally – I had pen pals all over the world and survived.

In an era where mass travel to exotic destinations hadn’t taken off, it was a way to find out about other countries through the eyes of people who lived in them. And hopefully they were people much like yourself – young and inquisitive.

DISCOVER: How we were terrified of nuclear war!

So, every so often, you got out your Basildon Bond notepad and penned letters to your Pen Pals in far off places. It was all pretty corny and innocent. However, if folks out there did have dreadful experiences with Pen Pals, I’d be interested to know.

Teen publications encouraged the whole Pen Pal thing. I found a Pen Pals column in a magazine from 1981 with teenagers asking other teens to write to them.

The Pen Pal ads, pleading for new potential friends to write, tell us so much about who we were back then.  Let me give you a random sample:

“Male futurist requires good looking girl interested in Spandau, Duran, Depeche Mode and Human League.  Other interests include extra-terrestrial beings (UFOs).”

“Four girls want to hear from four boys. Likes: Madness, Specials and all ska. We dislike heavy metal and punk.”

“18 year old mod needs cheering up by nice girl.”

“Hey there all you male headbangers! We are three female headbangers who love all heavy metal groups, especially Rainbow, Motorhead, Sabbath and Quo.”

“Ethel (16) in to Duran Duran, Trebor Mints, Seamus Meaney, Salsa, Depeche Mode, Dali, The Royal Family, vanity and lots more.”

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