Refresher Course

Mailed letter programs brought the world into the classroom

By Janet Klug

Collecting old covers – mailed envelopes, postcards and wrappers – is an exciting branch of stamp collecting.

Figure 1. A World Letter sent from Brazil contained a wealth of information about the country and its people. As a special treat, a piece of snake skin was included with this particular letter, providing another tactile item to educate and enthrall students.
Figure 2. World Letters could be collected in a beautiful bound volume. A parchment world map was provided with the subscription.

Collecting old covers with stuff in them doubles the pleasure, or maybe it triples the pleasure, depending on the stuff that is included.

Old letters can tell remarkable tales. They can make us laugh or cry, entertain or inform. Some, in fact, were designed specifically to educate.

In the 1930s, a program was developed to use informative letters and their outer coverings to teach social studies to children. It was a brilliantly devised program created by World Letters Inc.

Each week, the subscriber to the program would receive a letter from a travel writer who was touring the world. The letter was engaging and detailed, with information about the places being toured and the people who lived there. The writer might include an object like a leaf, a paper flag or some other small souvenir.

Figure 1 shows a World Letter written March 6, 1940. Sent from Brazil, it includes not only a stamped envelope and postmark, but a four-page letter and a piece of snake skin.

The letter documents travel on a Pan Am clipper airplane and a visit to a rubber plantation to watch the collection of latex. And, of course, it also provides details about acquiring the snake skin.

These letters, with their enclosures and the covers bearing foreign stamps and postmarks, all became treasures to collect. They served to reinforce geographic lessons learned in school. Stamps helped to educate students about faraway places.

Each year a different travel writer provided the text. Imagine how students would look forward to the weekly letter from afar. They would marvel over the stamps and pinpoint the place of origin on the classroom's world map.

A beautiful leather album with a cover skillfully tooled in the Arts and Crafts style could be purchased with a subscription to World Letters. The subscription also included a parchment world map. The album and map, along with a letter from Malaya, are shown in Figure 2.

The classroom teacher would consult the teacher's guide provided with the subscription. The teacher's guide set out the aims of the program: to cultivate world-mindedness in every child, to teach why people are what they are, and to enable children to develop a sympathetic attitude toward foreign problems and customs.

School clubs were encouraged and enhanced with the use of World Letters. The teacher's guide suggested that clubs for travel, stamp collecting, costume making, scrapbooking, letter writing, book reading, dancing, arts and crafts, nature, radio, current events, drama and commerce could spring from using the World Letters.

It sounds very much like programs that exist today that encourage the use of stamps in classrooms.

The World Letters program seems to have died when the United States entered World War II and international travel became impossible. Nevertheless, the covers and their enclosures still exist and can be found on occasion by trolling stamp show dealer boxes.

In the mid-1950s, a new program organized by the American Geographical Society utilized stamplike stickers to support a series of booklets that made social studies fun and tactile.

Subscribers would receive a set of paperbound booklets, each devoted to a single country. The booklets arrived in a pull-drawer cardboard box. The booklets were written by expert geographers and contained maps and black and white illustrations.

Bound within each booklet were full-color gummed stickers that could be moistened and affixed to spaces on the pages designated for each individual label.

It was sort of like stamp collecting, but easier for the publisher to make their own labels rather than try to find appropriate stamps. These booklets can still be found at used book sales and in online auctions.

Now in the 21st century, letter writing might seem like a disappearing form of communication. E-mail runs rampant, but will generations hence be tying love e-mails up with ribbon and cherishing them forever? It seems unlikely. Will blogs written by travelers today still be around 80 years from now? Probably not.

Real mail has a potential for permanence that electronic mail lacks. It is also tactile and memorable – and that is why we collect real mail.

The good news is that there are organizations today that still encourage letter writing.

The Letter Writers Alliance was formed "for those who enjoy letter writing and postal adventures" and is dedicated to preserving the art form. Contact the Letter Writers Alliance by writing to them at Box 221168, Chicago, IL 60622; or visit www.letterwriters.org.

There are also local letter writing clubs that gather once or twice a month to write letters and share letters they have received.

If writing a letter seems a little too onerous, can you pen a couple of sentences on the back of a picture postcard?

Postcrossing is an organization that facilitates friendly exchanges of picture postcards between people all over the world. It costs nothing to join. You will be given an address of someone outside your own country. You send a picture postcard to them. When they report to Postcrossing that they have received your postcard, your name will be sent to someone and they will send you a postcard. The exchange repeats again with new randomly selected names.

You can sign up to participate at www.postcrossing.com. It is fun and you might make some new friends.