You’ve Got Mail With Letterjoy

Can a college senior’s start-up spark an epistolary renaissance?

By Susannah Cohen

What did you receive in the mail today? Bills? Insurance statements? Perhaps you’ve been pre-approved for a new credit card? Or maybe that company you shopped at once three years ago sent you another catalog?

How much better would you feel if you’d returned home to find a real letter, written by an actual person, instead?

This is the thinking behind Letterjoy, a new epistolary subscription service that delivers real letters written by famous historical figures straight to your mailbox. Founded by college senior Michael Sitver — who is currently studying political science at the University of Chicago — Letterjoy recreates notable, old mail from the likes of Amelia Earhart and Winston Churchill using either a vintage Smith-Corona manual typewriter or hand-written text created by a Letterjoy designer. The letters are then printed onto cotton paper and delivered to subscribers once a week by first class mail. Each month there’s a specific theme, and you can send Sitver down a historical rabbit hole by suggesting new ones through a form on the website.

Letterjoy launched in November 2017 and has clearly struck a chord, its popularity taking even its founder by surprise. In its first few months, after putting out advertisements through social media and history podcasts, the service signed up thousands of members, including schoolchildren, business tycoons, elected officials, soldiers, and prisoners.

So why has the concept caught on so fast? A recent U.K. survey by the cruise line Cunard provides a clue. Conducted in 2018, it found that 26 percent of people had not sent or received a handwritten letter in the past 10 years. At the same time, 89 percent said they wished they received more letters, while 70 percent admitted to keeping their old ones. So while we’re writing fewer letters by hand, we’re apparently still craving them in our mailbox. That’s where the idea for Letterjoy came from.

How much do we love letters? You can even put a price on it: $1.5 million. The city of Syracuse in New York state recently decided to ditch standard legal letters reminding people to pay their back taxes, and sent personal, handwritten notes instead. It worked. They got back 57-percent more revenue than expected thanks to the bespoke postage.

Raised on social media and fluent in emoji, are younger people in particular missing out on the joy of old-fashioned letters? For Sitver, his only experience of receiving mail was at summer camp.

“My camp didn't allow cell phones or computer access,” he told OK Whatever. “That meant letters were our only means of communication. Every day I would run to my bunk to see if I got a letter, and when I did, I would read it over and over, searching for information I'd missed on the first reading.”

Sitver volunteers with a 4th grade class, teaching them how to write letters, and it saddens him that most kids today are missing out on the joys of a handwritten note.

“Most of them don't know the experience of receiving an interesting letter,” he said. “They never had a pen-pal. They never exchanged letters with their grandparents.”

Letterjoy is making its way into schools through its classroom subscription service, and it’s not the only organization trying to bring back the magic of written text. In 2017, the United States Postal Service celebrated the 105th anniversary of Operation Santa, a program where postal employees and volunteers respond to letters children have written to Santa. On a local level, a recent art project in Salt Lake City, Utah sold handwritten letters by vending machine, while a Dallas, Texas school has paired students with seniors in the community so that they can practice their cursive with a penpal.

In some ways, letters have become less a means of communication and more a way of showing that you care. A Florida teacher acknowledged the power of handwritten missives following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February when she appealed to fellow AP World History teachers to write letters for the students.

“I want them to hold the envelopes addressed from around the world to see that they are not alone,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

More recently, Americans have been sending letters and cards of support to migrant children separated from their parents at the border. "When I was at the detention center, I saw kids hanging on to them like they were Christmas gifts," Illinois Senator Dick Durbin told NBC Chicago.

So can we learn to love our mail again? It seems to be going in that direction.  Whether it’s a thank you note for a gift, an old-fashioned love letter, or an invitation to a party, receiving more personal items in the mail is never a bad thing. And perhaps Letterjoy’s voices from the past will inspire a few more of us to pick up our pens and jot something down on a piece of paper the next time we have an idea instead of just texting it.


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