Before the internet, the search for cultural guideposts required patience and ingenuity. Once your friends’ cultural knowledge had been exhausted, you were back to mining thank you credits in album liner notes or ads in the back of ‘zines for the next major influence in your life.
For my sister and me, growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, scoring pen pals who shared similar interests became a critical outlet to learn about music. When we traded mix tapes with our pen pals, the particular treasures of one small community would be spread to a new community. For snail mail, pen pal mix tapes were pretty darned efficient for sharing ideas and culture. And even more efficiently, we had our own tool to find pen pals—friendship books.
Friendship books were small handmade books that could fit in an envelope. Each person in receipt of an “f.b.” as they were nicknamed, advertised herself or himself as a potential pen pal. She listed her favorite bands, sometimes other hobbies and interests. A name, often a pseudonym, and address were provided. Implicit to participation was the message, “Please write me a letter.”
Check out each page of one friendship book below:
The friendship books were a form of mail art and a classified ad all at the same time. The f.b.s would be slowly passed from recipient to recipient along with letter correspondence, in a chain. It was like looking at information about your friend’s friend’s friend on facebook before facebook existed. Once all the pages in the book were filled, the person who completed the last page was duty-bound to send the friendship book back to the person who made it.
In 2017, my sister Alison got together with her old friendship book pen pal, Kelly, in Baltimore. We met up to talk about a long lost tape that Kelly had made her. Alison and I grew up in southern Pennsylvania, and Kelly grew up in New Jersey, but the tape she made for my sister shaped decades of music listening for both of us.
Sarah: I’m going to start by asking how you met. I know you met through pen-palling, but—
Kelly: So, was it Other Voices?
Alison: No, I think it must have been a friendship book. You wrote to me. Your friend Marg wrote to me. I don’t know if you got my address from her or from a friendship book. But I’m pretty sure that you wrote to me because you were the first of my next set of pen pals. I had two initial pen pals. And then you were in the set of my next pen pals.
Kelly: I was trying to remember this today, right. I don’t remember. That’s how I first found out about friendship books was Other Voices. But what was that [other] magazine? A British music magazine that would have pen pal ads in the back of it.
Alison: Smash Hits.
Kelly: Was that it?
Alison: Yeah, and that’s how I got my first two pen pals. So maybe it came somewhere via that.
Kelly: Yeah, I can’t remember exactly. Because probably I thought, “Oh, Pennsylvania seems close to New Jersey. And Azzi seems like a cool name. [laughter]”[Editor’s note: “Azzi” was the name that Alison used for friendship books because it was what I called her when I was first learning to talk, and it was a nickname that stuck through our school years.]
Sarah: What was Other Voices?
Alison: The Cure zine. A Cure pen pal zine.
Sarah: That was its sole focus, Cure pen pals?
Kelly: Well, it was a Cure fan club. And then they always had, in the back, pen pals. And then there were Cure articles in the inside of it, I guess. Were you in it?
Alison: No, I was never in it, but I’ve seen it. Two people named Charlotte Sometimes competing against someone named The Caterpillar Girl.
Kelly: I did used to write to someone named M, too, I think. [laughter] I wish I still had some of THOSE, the actual zines.
Sarah: How long had you been doing pen pal/ friendship book stuff before the two of you started writing [to one another]?
Alison: I started writing to my first two pen pals when I was 14, and I think Kelly was the next one, when I was 15.
Kelly: Sounds like about right because that would be like 9th grade? 10th grade? Yeah. Probably the same for me. I was trying to remember, too, when we started writing.
Alison: Probably like 10th grade.
Kelly: Yeah, I think so.
Alison: I remember that I had been doing friendship books with a pen pal. But they would just go back to her because I didn’t have anyone to send them to. So I guess eventually they got around to other people before I started doing them constantly.
Wikipedia has a page about friendship books. It even includes a glossary of common friendship book abbreviations, such as ICR for I Can Return and AA for Answers All.
Kelly: I know. I think initially I would only write to a couple people. It was probably just people nearby because I thought, “Oh, I could probably meet them!” And then it was like, “Oh wow, this person lives in California. That seems pretty cool.” But I think it was more that I must have liked something you wrote on your friendship book page and I was like, “Oh, I like that, too.”
Alison: I had this hierarchy of people that I liked who I wrote to. Because after a while I wrote to so many people that there were definitely different tiers. And I always liked writing to you because you were hilarious. You would talk about school, and it was really funny.
Kelly: I was funny talking about school? [laughter]
Alison: Well it was probably good commiseration. And I never felt like you had a separate persona, nor did I have a separate persona. But there were some people who I felt like they were living out some sort of persona, and then all the letters were super serious or within that vein. And ours were just sort of regular life and regular issues.
Kelly: Yeah, I can’t remember anybody specifically. But there were definitely people that were like—
Alison: I’d use them to pass along other friendship books. “I’ve got to get these out of the house!”
Sarah: Would one of you want to explain what a friendship book is? I tried to explain this to a friend recently, and I realized that I did a terrible job at doing it.
Alison: it sounds like something from 150 years ago. It’s not that different from an old-time autograph book. But imagine it where you would write something that you were interested in and then you would write your address. And then you would send it to somebody else. It’s hard to wrap your head around how someone would see that and know to write to someone else. That’s where I think it all falls apart in my explanation.
Kelly: I think it’s weird now to think that—my whole thing with it was, “I’m in this little teeny tiny town, and I have my three or four friends here. And we all like the same music. But to find out that there’s other people somewhere else?” Now there’s the Internet and you can go on to Facebook and you can just google something. Then it was like, “Oh my gosh, I just got something in the mail that says that there’s somebody in another town, in another state that I’ve never been to before, on this little piece of paper, and they wrote all the same bands that I’m totally in to right now. And I can’t even believe this person exists because there’s only three of us here in this town. That would be so cool to write to them!”
I was always super in to pen pals, even as a kid. So it was cool to be like, “I still like having pen pals in high school.”
Alison: [Friendship books were] kind of like an exaggerated address book of people you don’t know that you pass around.
In addition to friendship books, this pen pal community also circulated “slam books.” Slam books followed the tradition of confession albums of the late 1800s, which asked questions for which participants would craft pithy answers. In Questionnaire, Evan Kindley chronicles notable participants in confession albums:
“Despite the mixed reputation of this ‘new inquisition’ among genetlemen, many prominent nineteenth-century intellectuals submitted to it. Among them were Karl Marx (who considered his chief characteristic ‘singleness of purpose’ and whose favorite occupation was ‘bookworming’), Friederich Engels (whose idea of misery was ‘to go to a dentist’), Oscar Wilde (who wrote that his distinguishing characteristic was ‘inordinate self-esteem’ and that his bête noire was ‘a thorough Irish Protestant’), and Arthur Conan Doyle (who refused to answer several questions and described his present state of mind as ‘jaded’).”
Kindley also discusses the history of The Proust Questionnaire, the result of confession album entries by Marcel Proust which invited attention, admiration, and which renewed interest in the questionnaire format repeatedly throughout time.
Sarah: And then there was this culture around it, too. I think it’s kind of interesting that we all ended up getting these address mailing labels from one weird little mom and pop operation called Penguin Productions. Clearly, their ad campaign was not the most budgeted.
Alison: I think they started because of the Penguins- the hockey team. I think it was started for people who did sports-themed things. I don’t know who the first person who decided to put Roz Williams on one of them was. [laughter]
Alison: Can you imagine the weirdness of printing all those up and not knowing, just to look at those, what they would have been about?
Kelly: Then it would just be a lyric. The most obscure lyric printed on there.
Sarah: Yeah, and we all had aliases. And I’m not sure WHY, necessarily. It just made us sound cooler, I guess?
Alison: We shouldn’t use our real name because then somebody will look us up and come to our house—even though they HAD our ADDRESS.
Kelly: Yeah! Right, that part of it was a little weird!
Alison: But if you were really professional, you had a post office box.
Kelly: Yes. I think Marg and I got a post office box because we had these grand ideas to do a ‘zine and then we never did.
I don’t think I ever had any labels though. I wanted to.
Alison: I had to ask one of my other pen pals to send me the form for it. I had to wait until somebody else who had an extra form [for Penguin Productions] could make a Xerox copy of it to send to me so I could order the labels.
Sarah: Right, ‘cause you couldn’t go online.
Alison: Right, the only thing you could do was write to someone: “Please send me your goth-making kit. What examples do you have for Siouxsie & the Banshees?” [laughter]
Sarah: So do you remember what would make you write to one person versus not writing to someone? If you got a friendship book in the mail and you looked at it, what would make you say, “Oh, I’m actually going to write to that person.”
Alison: The bands, I think, probably.
Kelly: Yeah, the bands. I would probably look at, “How did they decorate it?” If they just wrote it with a marker, I would be like, “Eh it’s not a lot of effort put in there.”
Alison: If you got out the clear packing tape and the glitter, that was probably good.
Kelly: Some people were really—they were really elaborate.
Alison: I love the clear packing tape. Ones that are covered in the clear packing tape are my favorites.
Kelly: Yeah. I remember having so many art supplies just for f.b.s and envelopes.
Alison: Glue sticks everywhere.
Kelly: And pieces of books.
Alison: It gave us an excuse to never throw away a scrap of a magazine or lace. “I can use that! Even though there’s only two inches of it!”
For more photos of friendship books, see this excellent image archive from Christchurch, New Zealand: http://www.fluidr.com/photos/testpatern/sets/72157625189224987
Kelly: Yeah. I think some people seemed more accessible than others. Like you were saying that some people had a persona. If some people had too much of a persona, I would be like, maybe they were out of my league. Like they wouldn’t even write to me. I was kind of nervous about that.
Alison: Yeah! “They seem to have a lot of friends even on THIS level—[the level of] people who don’t have friends!” [laughter]
Kelly: “They’re probably busy.” [laughter]
Alison: In my mind, everybody else who was doing [pen palling and friendship books] only did that in their spare time because they had such fabulous lives. Where they lived, they were going to goth clubs every night and they were dressed up.
Sarah: So do you remember exchanging tapes? How many pen pals did you have? And of those, how many did you exchange tapes with?
Kelly: I don’t remember how many pen pals I had. The ones I can remember now—I wonder sometimes where these people are now.
Alison: They’re all on the internet, Kelly. [laughter]
Kelly: They’re somewhere on Facebook. Or somewhere on LinkedIn now, probably.
I feel like I wrote to a lot, but I don’t know if I wrote to ten people. Maybe definitely five. I know I would write to more people than that.
Alison: Yeah and some of them just didn’t last. It was very fluid. I had a core group of people that I kind of stayed with, but there were a lot of people who came in and out. I don’t know if they got sick of ME or I got sick of THEM or if it was that I ran out of time and then they assumed I was sick of them or vice versa.
Kelly: I don’t know who else I sent tapes to, though.
Alison: Yeah, just a few people. Just the top tier of my pen pals. [laughter]
I remember sending tapes to you and my other pen pal, Kelley. I can’t remember too many others. But we were constantly making tapes. That’s all we did.
Kelly: I know, right? Yeah, I must have sent tapes to other people, but I don’t remember anybody else’s except at least one that I had that you sent. There was probably more than one.
Alison: Yeah, probably. I only remember one specifically that you made but I feel like with enough time passed, one seems like a substantial amount.
Sarah: So what do you remember about that tape?
Alison: I remember that it started with X-Ray Spex, “O Bondage Up Yours,” which is a great song to start off with.
Alison: I mean this was right around just pre-riot grrl. So I feel like you were on the cusp.
Kelly: Yeah. I had a vision. [laughter]
Sarah: What else was on there?
Alison: Well, there was a band that apparently was only popular with pen pals and like five people in California called London After Midnight, who I feel like owed a LOT of their success to—
Kelly: –to all of us!
Alison: –to pen pals.
Sarah: Yeah, were you already a fan of that band before you got that tape?
Alison: Somebody else had taped me a couple of their songs. I think they only had an ep with a couple songs, and everybody would just tape off those.
Sarah: I remember our dad writing an angry letter to them because they did not fulfill a mail order.
Kelly: Alison was telling me about that. And that’s so opposite of my experience with any of this because my dad hated everything about everything, and he hated that I dyed my hair black. He came into my room one day and was so angry, and he grabbed my Christian Death record and broke it into a million pieces. And that was supposed to be some sort of I-don’t-know-what. “That’s how I feel about this!”
Alison: I bet you wrote a letter about that.
Kelly: [laughter] I probably did! “Azzi! Can you believe what just happened?!”
Alison: “Wait, my green ink is running out. Hold on a second.”
Kelly: What else was on the tape? Anything else?
Alison: The Pixies. And odd things. Oh! And this was the first time I remember hearing the song by The Animals, “When I Was Young.”
Sarah: Oo! Good song!
Kelly: O my god The Animals? That was probably from the 1969 soundtrack. I was obsessed with that soundtrack! I was just talking to someone else about that the other day.
I might have to look it up on Spotify later.
Sarah: What did the tape look like?
Alison: I don’t remember it being overly decorated. I believe there was green magic marker involved. I think you had named it. Because we would name tapes
Kelly: I remember naming tapes. I don’t remember what I named that one, though
Sarah: Was it something about paisley
Kelly: That was my pseudonym.
Sarah: So you would have gotten that in 10th or 11th grade?
Alison: Yeah probably like 10th or 11th grade.
Sarah: Do you remember anything about making that tape- like definitely wanting to put certain songs on?
Kelly: All those songs that you mention—I remember LOVING those songs. Like the X-Ray Spex. I can remember who I heard that song from first. I think that’s this other weird thing—how I would even find out about these bands. Either people would send you a tape or talk about something. Or I would see a band on an f.b. and think “What’s that?” and maybe next time I went out, try to find a record by them.
Alison: Mm-hm. And The Dickie’s version of the Banana Splits song.
Kelly: O yeah, because I loved the Banana Splits.
Sarah: I think I might remember – was this the tape that had “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal?
Alison: Yes, it did!
Sarah: How would you have heard that song? That seems pretty random.
Kelly: O my god, I forgot about that song. So I will say—there might have been stuff on that tape from this—someone, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend—somebody made some tape that was passed around between me and my friends that had everything to do with angel dust. Beastie Boys were on it. There was some song about smoking on the angel dust. There was Dust in the Wind. And I don’t even think I knew what angel dust was. But somehow we kept passing this tape around. We thought it was the greatest thing. And we would make copies of it. I would take songs from that to put on tapes. I don’t think “Warm Leatherette” was on there, though. I don’t know where I heard that song.
I’m so impressed now with my 16-year old self!
Sarah: Yes! A friend and I were just talking about this. How in the world did Kelly find The Normal? Who listens to The Normal ever? Or in high school?
Alison: If it’s not on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack, I don’t know how we would have heard it!
Kelly: Right, was that on 120 Minutes one night or something?
I’ll have to find all those songs on Spotify now.
Sarah: Do you remember when your pen palling days were starting to wane?
Alison: I think when people went off to college or when high school ended.
Kelly: Probably like my senior year. I was probably writing only to you and my friend Katie. I can’t really remember anybody else that year that I’d be writing to. And then after I graduated, I think the only person I sporadically kept in touch with was you.
Alison: Yeah I found that letter that I didn’t know existed where you wrote to me and I lived out in New Mexico. And I didn’t really remember ever receiving any letters from anybody out there. I think because I started to have friends! And I started being social! And I hadn’t really had that experience in huge measure before. So it was like, “O this is what it’s like in real life.” [laughter]
But for the record, I did marry my pen pal.
Kelly: That’s pretty cool.
Alison: I think some of those goth ‘zines were part and parcel with that whole culture. I think they only existed to pass around to other people we were friends with.
Sarah: You think that the network of people reading that ‘zine was not much larger than the pen pal network?
Alison: No, maybe less!
Kelly: Cause I think [the pen pal] groups would probably cycle through, too, and then people would go off to college and be like “What else is there in life?”
My friend Jeff, he wasn’t a pen pal, he was someone I was just friends with back then. But that’s still his life. He’s still in to the scene.
And I’m still in to the music. And aspects of it. But when I try to explain things to my husband he looks at me like, “Who is this?” He doesn’t get it. I’m still me.
Sarah: Do you remember getting back in touch more recently? Was that a few years ago?
Alison: Really recently. But there was another time before that. I was on Facebook for a brief period of time. I had this compulsion. I wanted to see how people turned out—see if they were okay, in a way. I wanted to find everybody I wrote to, to see if they were okay. And then for the most part, that was enough for me. But I wanted to stay in touch with Kelly, and when I got back on social media, I specifically looked for her.
Kelly: A month or so ago, two of my friends from high school were at my house. I don’t see them all the time, maybe once a year. And they still have friendship books. My friend Kristen said she has a whole bunch in a shoe box. I was like, “I want to see them!”
Sarah: Yeah, I have a small shoe box’s worth.
Mostly they were ones that Alison had made for me. Because remember how you had to make them FOR someone else and then put them out into circulation as a gift? They were ones made that never quite got circulated. But there are some that I was supposed to return to somebody that I didn’t.
Alison: Yeah, I found one recently, and it said it was made in either November 1988 or 89. And the thing is that by the time I got it and filled in the last page, it was probably 2-3 years later I bet. Things moved so slowly.
Sarah: Do you find that you have nostalgia for this period of time?
Alison: I think we’ve fallen back into writing each other naturally. Like, oh yeah, that’s what we used to do!
Kelly: Yeah, I think I have nostalgia for writing letters. I always have this thing about keeping in touch with people. I love either staying in touch with people or catching back up with somebody from a long time ago. I think everybody probably does stuff like that. I don’t know that I have nostalgia for that period of my life.
Alison: No because when I think of that, it was really not a good time.
Kelly: I was always grounded all the time.
Alison: I was always in my room! I was always in my room listening to music and being upset.
Kelly: I have journals that I kept all through high school, too, and they’re awful. When I read them, I just cringe. My God, were these the kind of letters I was writing?
Sarah: Awful in what way?
Kelly: It just sounds like a little kid. And there’s the awful, “I’m so in to so-and-so.” It just brings me back. And reading it brings me too close to the feeling of being 16, stuck in my room, grounded again. That’s kind of why it’s awful, too.
Alison: I’m kind of nostalgic in the way other people are nostalgic for real high school. I kind of felt like that was my real high school, my real education, and where I really found myself. And so I’m much more nostalgic for the people that I wrote to. It was like my alternate reality high school. And in our alternate reality high school, everything was perfect. And we all liked the same things. And no one made fun of us.
And you would have had the best record collection ever, because I’d never seen it, so of course it would have been awesome. You would have spent three hours every morning back-combing your hair and crimping it because you would have looked perfect and cool and not the way I would have been able to pull off, going to my stupid school. There’s a lot you can fill in when you don’t know someone very well.
Sarah: Isn’t that true, though, of Internet-based relationships of today?
Alison: Yeah, it was a good precursor. I feel like we had good planning for the Internet that other people didn’t. Like saying that you’re friends with someone and having never met them. Or having a friendship with someone that you’ve never met or may never meet. And being very close to someone.
Sarah: So you have spent time together since getting back in touch?
Alison: This is the second time.
Sarah: This is the second time?!
Kelly: If we had gotten back in touch sooner, we could have gone to the Cure show last summer.
Alison: Yeah, we were there at the same time and we didn’t know it. We’re doing our oldies review. We saw The Cure but didn’t know we were both there. Then we saw The Damned together. And tonight, we’re going to go see Poptone.
We could potentially be real-life friends now, which is probably what I would have loved when I was 15. Someday we’re all gonna be real-life friends.
Sarah: What about sharing music at this point?
Kelly: Making tapes for each other?
Alison: I feel like I’d put the same songs on now that I did then. And I’m not that creative anymore.
Kelly: I’ve been saying, “I’m going to look that up on Spotify” because in the last six months I discovered Spotify. I don’t know if that makes me a loser because it took me so long to discover it. I lost a bunch of cds. So when I think, “Oh, right! Warm Leatherette! I’ve got to look that up because I haven’t heard that song since I was 17!” I’ll go back and listen to that song. And that’s what all these playlists on Spotify end up being—all these songs from when I was 16.
Alison: Yeah, within the past couple of years, I’ve really regressed. Because I think when I was in my twenties and thirties, I was much more thinking that I’m not going to listen to what I listened to in high school. “I’m more worldly than that.” But it turns out, I’m not. [laughter]
Kelly: I just can’t keep up with current music. I listen to a lot of Father John Misty but other than that, current music escapes me. So if I made you a mixtape now, it would probably be Father John Misty and Billie Holiday and stuff like that that I listen to all the time. Hawaiian music. It would still be eclectic.
Alison is a letter writer, antique photography collector and purveyor, and researcher of sideshow photography in America’s first capital, York, PA.
Kelly lives in Catonsville, MD with her son, husband, dog and two cats. If someone were to send her a friendship book today, she’d decorate her page with watercolor paints and use a fountain pen to list her interests: cooking, collecting old cookbooks, throwing theme parties, reading, Neko Case, John Waters, My Favorite Murder.