Trips to the mailbox haven’t been this fun for Andrea McDougal in 50 years.
As a girl she waited patiently for letters and trinkets from a pen pal in Japan.
Today, alongside the junk mail and bills, postcards from new friends around the world wait in her box.
“You’re getting a personal communication,” McDougal, 64, said. “It’s handwritten, and people are telling you the neatest things about their lives. It’s the simplest things. It’s nothing profound. It’s something about their day-to-day life.”
In today’s world of electronic communication, McDougal and many others avoid email letters and social media friendships in favor of the old ways. They love the stamps, the handwriting and the feel of letters and postcards.
Above all they say they love making personal connections.
Last year McDougal discovered a website called Postcrossing (http://www.postcrossing.com) that connected her with others around the globe who love to send and receive postcards. The website randomly generated five names and addresses to whom she sent cards. Then she began receiving cards from other site members — more than 200 since September.
“There’s something about going to your mailbox and finding three or four postcards and letters from around the world,” McDougal said.
The average American’s mailbox fills with so-called junk mail. Advertising mail accounts for 61 percent of all mail, according to the U.S. Postal Service’s Household Diary Survey for 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
Americans also receive fewer letters in the mail. Only 35 percent of household mail contained letters and correspondence in 2011, according to the survey, a decline of 33 percent from 2002.
“You get so sick of looking at it,” McDougal said about the advertisements and solicitations that crowd her box. “Do I need this or throw it away? There’s bills, but (the postcards) is like it used to be. It’s like a lost art. It’s wonderful that it is still around for people who want it.”
While the speed and efficiency of email is “really hard to beat,” said Postcrossing founder Paulo Magalhaes, it cannot replace the feelings associated with a letter.
“When you get a postcard, it can brighten your day,” Magalhaes wrote via email from Germany. “It’s tangible, something you can place on your fridge door or take with you to show at work. Who does that with email these days?”
Rachel Peters discovered Postcrossing while teaching geography for a cooperative of home-schooling parents. When Peters, 29, of Denham Springs, receives a postcard, she asks her 7-year-old son to find where it came from on a globe. Then they study that country and even make recipes from that culture.
“You can get more information from the Internet than you could get from the mail, but it’s different to be able, especially for kids, to touch this postcard that traveled thousands of miles and look at the stamp,” she said. “It’s something that it’s easier to relate to because it’s something you can touch.”
They have received gifts from people around the world who hope to share their own cultures — candy from Australia, banana leaf puppets from India, currency from Mexico.
“I think it’s very interesting,” Peters said. “It’s like pretending to go somewhere.”
When Peters mails postcards, she often sends pictures she has taken of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. On the back she includes a little piece of Louisiana culture — a copy of her husband’s uncle’s jambalaya recipe that she says is familiar to many around Hammond.
Postcards of Louisiana culture and the state map are highly sought after by international Postcrossing users, said Daniel LeBoeuf, a high school and community college instructor in Arnaudville. LeBoeuf searches for cards with iconic Louisiana images of the bayou or New Orleans.
In the five years since he discovered Postcrossing, tacks.
“I did it for a while, but now I’m up in the numbers, 1,500 or so,” he said, “and you just can’t have that many thumbtacks on a wall.”
Whenever McDougal read about Postcrossing last year, and it reminded her of a childhood pen pal from Japan. Found in a weekly section of a New Orleans newspaper, they traded letters, postcards and bookmarks for about two years, and McDougal fondly remembers learning about her culture and seeing pictures of her in the traditional Japanese dress.
In the breakfast room of her home, McDougal has displayed some of her favorite postcards. The most creative letter she has received came from a French woman. Its creative packaging included a vintage Valentine card, a decades-old movie ticket and an old postcard from a grandfather’s business, which featured a black-and-white map of the woman’s small town.
Such meaningful gifts make McDougal feel better about the state of the world.
“When we look at the news, we’re so depressed,” she said. “The state of the world is horrible. And, you know, like some of these people, they will say kisses from Belarus, or I love you. There is so much left there, of beauty and quality.”