The Development of Letters and How to Make Pen Pals

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

The Evolution of Communication: From Letters to SMS

Nowadays we enjoy what is known as instant communication. We can easily send, receive, read, and reply to messages in mere seconds. Large amounts of all kinds of information are floating in the air around us or transmitted through thick and extremely long cables lying peacefully on the ocean floor.

Ever since telephones and telegraphs were developed, the field of communication has not stopped evolving. In 1965, the first email system was invented to allow computers to communicate with one another. Two and a half decades later, emails started to be used over the Internet to exchange information between distant computers.

First SMS

Technology was then taken to the next level as instant messaging apps began to emerge. The beginning of this evolution started with the first SMS. Do you know what that is? Well, SMS is the abbreviation for the Short Messaging Service which allowed people for the first time to exchange instant, short messages on their mobile phones. 

British software developer Neil Papworth who was trying to create this service for Vodafone was finally able to send the first SMS on December 3rd, 1992 from his computer to his colleague Richard Jarvis’s mobile phone. The message simply said ‘Merry Christmas’.

In 1993, the famous Finnish telecommunications company Nokia implemented the SMS service within its mobile phones allowing them to ‘beep’ once they receive a new message.

Interestingly, this first Merry-Christmas SMS was sold in December 2021 at an auction in Paris, France for €107,000! Well, some people are passionate about other things than stamp collection, you know!

Then, online chatting apps

Since then, real-time texts and online chatting apps have been evolving. WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, Telegram, Line, and many others provide easier and pretty straightforward message exchange methods packed with so many interesting features.

Take WhatsApp for example. At first, it was just a friendly green icon app that allowed the sending and receiving of text messages, pictures, and videos. This, in and of itself, is amazing but what came after that was not even imaginable.

WhatsApp developed different features that track the reception of a message. A clock icon beside a message means the phone is not connected to the Internet. One tick means the message is sent but still roaming in the air and not received by the recipient. Two grey ticks mean the message is received but has not been read yet. Two blue ticks refer to a message that has been read and Typing… means your friend is replying to your text.

It did not stop there and more and more features were added. Communication has been made ridiculously easier with voice notes and message deletion, forwarding, broadcasting, and scheduling with a high level of encryption that keeps the messages safe and secret.

That being said, we seem to be more used to those amazing features than grateful to them, let alone those who developed them. However, only one look back at how communication used to be in the past can bring back all the missing value.

The History of Letters

If there is one thing that has been in use since the dawn of history up to the present day, it is letters. Unlike everything else that has a certain lifetime to exist, letters seem to be immortal. Yes, their exchange is quite limited nowadays; however, letters are still in use.

Ever since old civilizations flourished, people have been using letters to share important information with others who lived far away. That method of news exchange was developed after the Sumerians invented writing around 3500 BC. 

At first, people used to write their messages on rocks as long as they were portable. In 2700 BC, the ancient Egyptians invented paper and made it easy to send longer letters that were easy to carry. 

The use of letters had become so wide that it was not limited to literate people. Even those who could not read or write were able to send and receive letters to their distant relatives by paying someone to write and read letters for them.

Letters were delivered by people who were either heading to the same place or willing to. However, those were not the only messengers of letters. Interestingly, pigeons were too.

The method of using pigeons to send messages could be attributed to the ancient Persians. That is mostly because they were the ones who invented the art of training birds in the first place.

Because pigeons had this instinctive ability to go back home no matter where they were, people used them to send messages by attaching them to their legs.

This method of message delivery was widely used in and between many places around the world for centuries. It continued for thousands of years throughout history up until the early 20th century. After that, the pigeon post was gradually limited by the revolution of postal services, telephones, and telegraphs.

Postal services? What are those?

The idea of the postal service was quite simple. Whoever had a letter to send could just subscribe to a service that took the responsibility for delivering the letters. People would pay a certain amount of money to a post office. Then whenever they wanted to send a letter, they only needed to write the recipient’s name and address on the back of the envelope, stick a stamp, and drop it into the nearby mailbox. 

People who worked in the post office would then take the letters from the mailbox and travel to the exact destinations to deliver the letters. Letters were sent not only nationwide but also abroad. The postal services developed to use planes to deliver letters to far places. This was commonly known as Airmail.

Types of letters

It is not just the means of letter delivery that developed over the years but also the content of the letters. As we mentioned, people of the past used to share information, news, life updates and even greetings and condolences in their letters.

Then more and more letter purposes started to come out. For instance, letters turned into a way to practice writing itself. Senders tried to express themselves and share their thoughts with the receivers.

People were even arguing and debating about scientific topics through letters. Academics exchanged letters to share ideas, advice or even warnings in secrecy. An example of that was the famous letter from the scientist Albert Einstein to the US president Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. In this letter, Einstein explained the possibility of creating a nuclear reaction using uranium. He also suggested the US government started an atomic bomb project.

More and more letter categories appeared, mostly determined by the letters’ content. The first famous category of letters is intended to show emotions. One type of letter in this category is the love letter. This is when two lovers exchange messages expressing their sentiments toward one another, complaining about being so far apart, or maybe even dreaming of the moment they will be reunited.

The opposite is the hate letter. Telling by the name, this letter is full of hatred talk and intimidating, abusive, harassing, and even threatening words to the recipient. No one would ever want to receive a letter like this.

People also send letters to show their condolences to others who lost a dear person. 

The fourth type is the fan mail which was pretty common among celebrities during the 20th century. That was when people who liked an actor or a singer sent letters of admiration, support, or encouragement to their favourite public figure.

Fan mail was not only limited to written messages. People also used to send presents, cards, or works of art along with their messages. In return, the celebrity may reply to their fans thanking them for their kind words. Some of them even used to send a signed photo or a poster.

Then we have the letter category that is mostly used in study and work.

A cover letter is sent with a CV for a job or a scholarship application to boost one’s chance of winning what they are applying for. In such a letter, a person should mention in some detail their top skills, abilities, and professional experience in the field. The tone of such a letter should show confidence but not arrogance. A winning cover letter should, therefore, be persuasive.

Next is the sales letter. That may sound like the cover letter but instead of being sent to a company or a university, it is rather sent to customers. Such letters try to convince people to buy a certain product or subscribe to a service.

A resignation letter is sent when an employee informs his/her boss that they are leaving their job. The opposite is the termination letter in which a company administration tells an employee they have been sacked. Such is admittedly a scary letter to receive.

In addition, a business letter is the one exchanged between companies or clients asking for information, urging an action, pinpointing mistakes, or just sharing anything related to the business as a whole.

Other than that, there are many different kinds of letters that each fulfils a certain purpose.

Then what happened?

With the rise and evolution of technology, letters gradually lost their convenience as the number one communication method. People realised that they were not very helpful in times of emergency. If they needed to immediately communicate with someone, letters were no use but telephones and instant messages were.

Year after year, more people were tuning to use their phones and computers for messaging. On the other hand, letters slowly fell into the old school category. People started viewing them as something from the past.

Now, letters are mostly treated like antiques, something of heritage that should be well-preserved. In fact, there is a museum in Paris, France named the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts that has a wide collection of original famous old letters. 

Yet, letters have not completely disappeared

As technology literally took over our life, many have become tired of it. Surprisingly, some people are turning back to writing letters nonetheless. They are using it as a way to slow down and detach from technology. In a world full of buttons and touch screens, holding a pen and writing on paper seems as nostalgic and enjoyable as it is uncommon.

Over and above that, writing letters has turned into an art. People who are reviving letter writing use a whole set of stationary tools of different pens, crayons, stickers, stamps, papers, and envelopes. They are practising handwriting and lettering and adding different small drawings that make their letters look vintage and beautiful.

The importance of letter writing for kids

As kids make it to school and move from one year to another, they learn to write different kinds of text. One way to make writing practise more fun is by making kids write letters. Letter writing in and of itself is not only an important skill to learn, but it also allows kids to:

  • Learn to express themselves and describe things.
  • Practice correct grammar.
  • Learn new vocabulary.
  • Improve handwriting.
  • Develop their thinking.

Out of all the types of letters we mentioned above, kids primarily need to learn to write formal letters which they can send to adults and informal letters to exchange with their distant family members and friends.

In order to be able to send the letters they write, kids need to have some important information beforehand. In addition, they need to roughly plan what the letter is going to include and whether or not they will enclose any material within the envelope. In general, kids need to know:

  • The recipient’s full name.
  • The detailed address of the recipient: country, city, neighbourhood, street, and building number.
  • Recipient’s postcode.

Material-wise, kids will need:

  • A sheet of paper
  • A good pen
  • An envelope
  • A stamp
  • Any cards or gifts they wish to send along.

Now, let’s discuss how to write both types of letters. 

How to write a formal letter

Kids would usually send formal letters to adults to either share information or request it. For instance, a pupil might send a formal letter to a teacher or school principal in case they have any requests or even complaints.

To write good letters, it is easier to think of them as consisting of blocks. Each block contains some information. 

Block 1: contact information and date

On the right side of the page, write your address (the sender’s address) and today’s date. Start with the street name and number in the first line, city and postal code in the second line, and then include the date in the third line.

62 Oliver H. Jacob St.

Brighton BN3 1HJ

21st January 2022

Block 2: Salutation

Skip a line, then on the left, write a formal salutation followed by the recipient’s last name and a comma. You can use the recipient’s full name or title but never address them with their first name.

In case you do not know the name of who you are contacting, you can just say Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern.

Dear Mr. Hudson,

Block 3: Write the body of the letter.

This is the most important part of your letter. You need to make sure you get your message clear and straight to the point. It is recommended you start by introducing yourself to the recipient if they might not know you in person. Then you should mention your concern or question. 

The body of the letter can be one or multiple paragraphs.

I am writing this letter to you to ask if it is fine to retake the science midterm exam. I happened to be quite ill for a few days before the test and was not able to study well. I was even absent when you announced the test will be held on Tuesday. Now that I got better and was able to study hard, I would be grateful if you would allow me to take the test again.

Block 4: Write a fine close to the letter.

This is the final block of your letter. You can either write a thank-you note to your teacher or add a call-to-action such as ‘please reply to me as soon as you are able’.

Followed by that, you should write a fine closing as well as your first and last name.

Thank you so much for your support and for being a great teacher.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Yours sincerely,

Nate Michaels

Block 5: Add a postscript (optional)

Handwritten letters are not like emails. If you forget to add something, there is no way you can go back and free some space on the page to write it. You can definitely rewrite the whole letter. However, you can avoid that by adding a postscript to the end of your letter. This is to tell the recipient what you forgot to say.

You can also use this part to mention any material you enclose with the letter such as a certificate or a picture.

P.S. I have attached the homework from the day I was absent. I am sorry for being late submitting it.

So all in all, your formal letter can look something like this:

62 Oliver H. Jacob St.

Brighton BN3 1HJ

2nd November 2021

Dear Mr. Hudson,

I am writing this letter to you to ask if it is fine to retake the science midterm exam. I happened to be quite ill for a few days before the test and was not able to study well. I was even absent when you announced the test will be held on Tuesday. Now that I got better and was able to study hard, I would be grateful if you would allow me to take the test again.

Thank you so much for your support and for being a great teacher.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Yours sincerely,

Nate Michaels

P.S. I have attached the homework from the day I was absent. I am sorry for being late in submitting it.

After you are done writing your letter, you need to:

  • Read the letter once again and look for any spelling, grammatical, or punctuation mistakes and correct them.
  • Fold your letter and put it in an envelope.
  • Enclose any extra documents if found.
  • Seal the envelope.
  • Write the recipient’s full name, address, and postal code on the back of the envelope.
  • Drop it in a mailbox.
  • Wait until you receive a reply!

Pay attention..

Since this is a formal letter, you need to be careful with the language as much as you can. Remember you are writing to an adult. So you need to use polite and neat expressions. Here are some things you need to avoid when writing a formal letter:

  • Do not use contractions. Write (you are) instead of (you’re).
  • Do not use informal salutations or expressions such as (hi) or (what’s up).
  • Do not address the recipient by their first name.

Pen pals and informal letters

Despite being highly important, writing formal letters can be an occasional event. However, writing to distant friends is more frequent as well as enjoyable. One way to do this is by exchanging letters with pen pals.

But who are pen pals?

Pen pals are primarily two strangers living in different countries who start to develop their friendship through exchanging letters. They usually write about themselves and ask questions to explore each other’s life and culture.

Such a kind of letter exchange was popular between writers and philosophers in the 18th century. But the idea started to receive more attention in the 1930s when an American teacher wanted to develop his students’ creativity and learning abilities.

So he encouraged them to write to other friends from different countries to learn about their cultures and broaden their understanding of the world.

Another purpose of developing a pen pal relationship is to practice reading and writing in a foreign language one of the pals is learning. For instance, a kid learning French in the USA can practice his French by writing to and reading letters from another same-aged kid from France.

The idea then evolved into a service that matched students with one another so the letter exchange experience turned out fruitful for both. Interestingly, the service is still operating and kids can use it to connect with and start writing to other kids from all around the world.

Nowadays, there are many pen pal websites that connect people to one another and let them start the interesting journey of developing a pen pal relationship and exploring other cultures.

How to write an informal letter to a pen pal

Letters to pen pals are usually informal letters. They are different from the formal letters we learned a section ago because of the tone used. Since you are mainly writing to someone at the same age as you, a friend-to-be, the tone is much lighter and informal. You can use contractions as well as everyday expressions.

Now imagine you have used a student letter exchange service and were matched with someone from New Zealand. You then have to write your first letter to him or her.

An informal letter has the same blocks as a formal letter. You write your detailed address and today’s date at the top right of the paper. Then you greet your pen pal and add your body section. The main difference is the content of your letter.

For your first letter to your pen pal, you need to write a bit about yourself. Self introduction should include your name, age, where you live, how many members there are in your family, and what school year you are in.

Next, you can add some information about your favourite subjects, hobbies, and what you like to do in your free time. Another part can be about how you look and what type of personality you have. 

You can also send your pal a picture of yours.

In the next paragraph, you should ask your pal some questions about him/her to get to know them. You can generally ask them to tell you about themselves or you can specify these points as name, age, family, hometown, favourite pets, etc.

Asking multiple questions shows you are interested in your pen pal and want to know about their life and culture. At the same time, you should be careful with what you ask. Remember they are from a different culture. Sometimes, what might be very familiar to you can sound awkward to them.

You also need to avoid asking very personal questions. For instance, you cannot ask your pal: are you rich? Do you live in a fancy house? Does your father make a lot of money?

If your pal does not reply to certain questions, that probably means they do not want to talk about that topic. So respect them and avoid asking those questions again.

After that is the closing. You should finish your letter with a nice closing and let your pal know you are waiting for their reply. You can use expressions like see you soon, until next time, or hope to hear from you. Then you add a final greeting and your name.

Your first letter to a pen pal can be something like this:

18 Ronald Road

Dublin D03 526

19th October 2021

Dear David,

I am Chloé Wilson. Although my name is French, I am actually Irish. I live in Dublin which is the capital city of Ireland. I live with my parents and a younger brother called Jimmy. I am 11 years old and I am in the 5th class. I like geography and science a lot but I am not very good at maths.

I like school so much and I study a lot. But when I have free time, I like to read or play with my little brother. On weekends, I go to swimming classes and I really like it. But I don’t train in winter because it gets extremely cold here in Dublin. 

We have a cute cat called Whitney but I call her Whitty for short. She has fluffy grey hair and big green eyes. She likes to play all the time but she hates water. Every time we shower her, she keeps meowing loudly.

What about you? Do you have any pets? What is your favourite subject at school? Do you play any sports? Are you learning any foreign languages?

Please write soon and tell me about yourself and your life.

Best wishes,



Connecting with other people is one of the joys of life. Thanks to modern communication methods, we are able to communicate with family members and friends who live far away in just a few seconds.

But in the past, people used completely different ways to get in touch with others. They used to exchange letters to share important news and life updates. Letters were either sent with other people who were either hired to deliver the message or were heading where the recipient lived.

For thousands of years, people also used pigeons for message delivery after the ancient Persians showed the world how to train birds. Thanks to their homing instinct, pigeons were able to send messages between distant places. This method was used up until the early 20th century.

As the delivery methods developed, letters’ content also varied. This allowed letters to be categorised differently. For instance, letters could be for sharing love, hate, or admiration of others, especially celebrities. Cover letters were sent to boost one’s application for a job or scholarship. Other types of letters also included resignation letters, sales letters, business letters, and termination letters.

With the widespread use of technology and instant messaging applications, the use of letters has declined dramatically since the mid-20th century. However, this did not make letters go extinct.

Still, many people are writing and sending letters. The skill of letter writing still has so much significance, especially for kids. It enables them to improve their writing and proofreading skills. They also learn to express themselves and develop their thinking.

In this article, we learned how to write formal letters. These are letters which are usually sent to teachers, school principals, or adults in general. In addition, we learned to write informal letters which we exchange with family members and friends.

Kids nowadays can practice letter writing by developing a pen pal friendship with another distant kid of the same age. The idea started in the USA by a teacher to allow his students to feed their curiosity about the world by connecting with other students from different countries. It also allows kids to practise reading and writing in foreign languages if their pals speak the language they are learning.

Now how about finding yourself a good pen pal and writing to them? 

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