Tired of heart emojis, young Kansas City letter writers revive the art of snail mail
According to the U.S. Postal Service, letters and cards have been on the decline for the past 20 years. But that hasn’t stopped some millennials and Gen Z enthusiasts from using snail mail.
Nikita Imafidon is a long-time letter writer. Growing up, the 24-year-old used to meet her pen pals on the blogging site Tumblr. During the early days of the pandemic, she began putting extra effort into her missives, adding doodles and details to the letters she wrote to coworkers and friends she couldn’t see in person.
“It just became more of a way of both record-keeping, as well as being able to be like, ‘Hey, I’m really curious about how you’re doing,’” she said. “It just became more of an art form to me.”
Now that she’s able to work and see people in person again, she hasn’t stopped. She gets inspiration from Pinterest and from her job as a stationery seller at the gift and art supply store Wonder Fair in Lawrence.
And she’s not the only young person who has combined her love of physical mail with the internet and turned to more tangible forms of communication — at a time when most people are just a text or Zoom call away. Despite 20 years of U.S. Postal Service data showing a decline in households sending and receiving letters and greeting cards, snail mail remains a beloved pastime for many millennials and members of Gen Z.
Social media has inspired many customers in their teens and 20s, said Meredith Moore, co-owner of Wonder Fair. The store used to sell materials for sealing letters with wax to mostly older hobbyists, but that’s changed now that TikTok, Instagram and YouTube videos of wax sealing and stationery design have become trendy.
“Those videos are extremely popular and that popularity just keeps growing,” Moore said. “So people see it online and then they’d like to try it themselves.”
At Wonder Fair, sales of writing materials like stationery and cards rose about 20% in 2020, Moore said, and have risen 30% each year since then. The store used to sell most of its cards around holidays like Christmas and Mother’s Day. Now, cards sell briskly year-round.
“I don’t know if that’s pandemic-related, but maybe people are starting to really appreciate their families as they’re apart,” Moore said.
At Kansas City-based greeting card giant Hallmark, sales of cards for essential workers like teachers and delivery drivers are up. The company declined to share information about how overall sales had changed during the pandemic. But humorous cards, religious cards and cards not geared toward any specific occasion have also been popular during the past two years, said Nicole Hite-Heleniak, Hallmark’s vice president of creative and product development.
Millennials represent almost 20% of the money spent in the greeting card industry, she said. They’re in the life stages when people most often send cards: marriage, childbirth, getting a first job. And Gen Z is starting to enter those stages.
“They’re looking to greeting cards as a way to inject some positivity into the world, their lives and their relationships,” Hite-Heleniak said.
Greeting cards have always played that role in 34-year-old Crystal Everett’s life. The Kansas City resident grew up receiving cards from her grandmother, who worked at Hallmark as an administrative assistant. Now, Everett uses her old cards as a way to reminisce about graduations and birthdays. And she sends cards to mark special occasions or show appreciation for the people in her life.
She’s passing the tradition on to her 4-year-old daughter, Mari, teaching her to sign her name on thank you cards, even though she can’t read yet.
“At some point, she’ll be able to appreciate, well, ‘someone gave me a card for my birthday,’” Everett said. “When she can read, she can go back and relive in the moment.”
Trent Boultinghouse, a 31-year-old who lives in Mission, has used snail mail to connect with others online. During the pandemic, he began writing letters to retired baseball players, telling them about his love of baseball and asking for autographs.
“I just kind of felt like I was racing the clock and wanted to just reach out and let them know that they had a fan while I still could,” he said.
He’s received touching letters back from the players and their family members. And he’s met other baseball enthusiasts on Snapchat, where they share photos of letters they’ve received.
“I really enjoy the feel of holding something in your hand and knowing that at least somebody else held that item,” Boultinghouse said. “It helps connect, I think, between humans.”
That’s one reason Imafidon, of Wonder Fair, loves letters and cards, even though they’re slower and more expensive than just sending someone a text.
“A lot of people think art is something that needs to be seen on a large scale,” she said. “I think it's just really important that ephemera exists, and that things that are just small pieces of your creativity and your words and your art exist for one other person. And that's just enough.”
Imafidon used to dislike Valentine’s Day, but now she sees sending valentines as an extension of that outlook.
“It is a holiday that's really just based around cuteness,” she said. “And I think that people don't necessarily respect that as much as it should be. Why does it have to be important? It can just be cute. Things can just be cute, and that's wonderful.”