Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. So says the inscription above the post office in New York City, and you can’t deny it a certain romanticism — it invokes visions of hardy postal workers braving inclement weather and unfriendly dogs, or of rugged air pilots commandeering the rickety planes of the Aéropostale, or of the young orphan boys that made up the majority of the riders of the Pony Express.
No longer. Whether we like it or not, we know the heyday of the mails is past. Around the world, the digital is overcoming the analog, and in developed countries we’ve by and large traded handwritten notes for emails and text messages and other iterations of one-and-zero communication. This is very convenient, of course, and it enables me to write this article in Brno and have it be read tonight by an editor in western Canada, but there is a certain romanticism to the delivery of physical objects that is left behind in the transition.
However, though we might live in the sunset days of paper mail, all is not lost. Here are 5 ways to utilize the mails to make your life (and the world) more wonderful.
1. Send postcards around the world.
This is a simple and lovely project whose premise is this: You send a postcard to a stranger somewhere in the world, and in exchange you receive a postcard from somewhere else. You simply register for an address to send a postcard to, and once your recipient registers receiving it, someone else sends you one back.
Postcrossing has almost half a million members from 217 countries, and it claims to send 1,470 postcards per hour. It will probably make your mailbox a more exciting place.
2. Trade your old books.
You have old books that you no longer want to read, right? Someone else might want to read them. Join PaperBackSwap, offer up all your old books, and if someone wants to read one, they contact you and you mail it to them. In exchange you get a book credit, which you can use to request someone else’s book.
Old books find new readers, you get fun things to read in your mailbox, the postal service doesn’t go bankrupt. Everyone wins.
3. Become a prisoner’s penpal.
The Prisoner Correspondence Project is a collectively run Montreal-based initiative that connects people in American and Canadian prisons with non-incarcerated penpals.
This particular initiative aims to connect queer prisoners with non-incarcerated people in the queer community, but many others like it exist that are not specifically queer-oriented. Their aim is to provide people in jail with human companionship and connections to the outside world in what can otherwise be a lonely and isolating existence.
4. Send a care package to a solider.
While the motivations for various wars are often disputable, the difficulties, stress, and loneliness felt by soldiers on duty are not. Several services exist that allow units to ask for things they’d like in their care packages, and any civilian can send one through the mails. The requests are often for simple things like tissues, chocolate, crosswords, and books.
Projects like these are a reminder that it’s often quite simple to help someone quite a lot.
5. Play correspondence chess.
When I was a little girl, my grandfather told me about the idea of correspondence chess — playing chess with an opponent by mail. Both players set up a chessboard and take turns sending each other moves via postcards. (Dear Sir, White Pawn D2 → D4. How are your hydrangeas doing? Send my regards to your mother.)
In my first year of university, I became enthusiastic about this, so I asked my friend John to play with me, but he was less enthusiastic, so our game quickly petered out into nothingness. Of course, correspondence chess games take impractically long, and it probably makes a loss all the more annoying if it comes after three months of play, but in this case practicality was not really the point anyway. Of course, you can do the same thing quickly and efficiently on the internet, but if you want to be really deliberate about moving your horse three spaces, it just doesn’t have the same effect.
(P.S. Though I’m not very good at chess, if you’d like to play a correspondence game with me, let me know!)
Bonus: Send a telegram.
If you want to take old-school communication to the next level, you can always send a telegram — this is a fully legitimate service that still uses the network that Western Union built in the process of acquiring a monopoly on telegraph services back in the days of America’s rabid westward expansion.
Telegrams do actually have a practical point in that they’re a faster way to send a printed message than the regular mail — your message gets wired to a post office near its destination, which then produces and delivers a telegram, which is quicker than carting an envelope across continents.
Of course, if that fails, you can always train carrier pigeons.