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Somewhere caught between social distancing and endless Zoom happy hours, keeping in touch with friends and family in an intimate, personal way during the coronavirus era can be challenging. Sending mail — yes, I’m talking about snail mail, handwritten with stamps — is one great way to slow down the constant digital communication while showing someone you care.
I generally have a lot of stationary at home and relish in the process of going to a local store to buy a quirky card for any occasion: birthdays, holidays, get-well-soon-days, just-because-days. However, I find myself sheltering in place, uncharacteristically, with nary a card to spare. My usual go-to places are closed or only offering curbside pick-up, and what’s the fun of spending $5 on a card if I can’t rifle through the entire rack laughing at all the punny jokes and marveling at the artwork?
Plus, though I am eternally grateful for my privilege of being healthy and home right now, I’m a little bit bored. I could use a craft. Looking around at the piles of colorful magazines languishing in dusty corners of my bookshelf, I decided to try and make my own collage-cards out of materials I could find around the house.
Learning to try
Now, here’s the obvious question: can you send coronavirus through the mail? Well, scientists aren’t positive, but they believe the answer is no, according to New York Times reporting from March 24.
The World Health Organization said the same about packages on March 9, stating “the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, traveled and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”
With the public health go-ahead, I decided to send a letter to my college roommate, Brina, who is riding out the pandemic at its epicenter: New York City. I figured she could use a pick-me-up, and after living with me for over a year, she’s always game for my quirky projects (even that time I tried composting in our apartment freezer and made everything taste like banana peels and coffee grounds).
First, I had to figure out how to make an envelope. According to the blog The Postman’s Knock, as long as you follow certain U.S. Postal Service regulations you can make your own envelopes and successfully send them through the mail. Post offices process letters using machines, which apparently will only process your letter if the envelope is a standard size; flat and even; not made out of a reflective material and the address on the envelope is legible.
If any of those criteria are not met — for example, if your envelope is an irregular shape — your envelope is “non-machinable.” Hope isn’t lost, though: you can add extra postage and your mail might still get through.
I found a set of instructions from a blog called Hey Wanderer that shows you how to make an envelope with a single magazine page. It does involve unfolding an existing envelope to use as a template, which kind of defeats the purpose, but I told myself that I will save it to use as a template for future upcycled envelopes.
Then, I had to figure out how to make a card. I didn’t have any cardstock on-hand, and even if I did, cardstock is expensive and I wanted to commit to the upcycled aesthetic. After reading a few online forums and blog posts, I decided that I would use a cereal box and a piece of junk mail with a blank side in order to make the base for my card.
A trying experience
First, I embarked on making my envelope. I landed on a great magazine page in an old issue of Down East Magazine for an article about lobster rolls that was colorful (and very Maine).
I unfolded my envelope to use as a template. The envelope didn’t quite fit on the page, so I had to get creative with angles. I laid the page face-down on the template and used the lines to fold it, like one of those t-shirt folders that the perfectionist in me has always lusted after.
The edges of my envelope were uneven, but I was able to creatively fold and glue to make sure only the best bits showed. I used Mod Podge, the patron saint of craft glue, to stick the edges down, being careful not to glue the tabs to the back of the envelope.
I also used junk mail to make the labels. I cut my printed address label out of the front and used a blank corner to write Brina’s address. I glued both down onto the front of my envelope in their respective positions.
Next, I grabbed the cereal box for the card. I used the envelope to measure how large the card needed to be, tracing the outline and cutting slightly inside of the lines. I am not very good at cutting, so I had to adjust and trim the card once I had cut it out.
Then, it was time to get creative. I could have gone a number of routes with my card collage, but I decided to use another full-page spread for the front of the card. I chose a waterfall photo also from a magazine.
I learned pretty quickly that I am bad at glueing, too. My waterfall photo was dimpled and buckled, especially after it dried. I contemplated starting over and decided that the strange flaws made it unique and decidedly “Sam.” For those of you who are looking for a smoother surface, eHow has some great tips on how to apply glue without causing bubbles, from applying glue in an S-shape and pressing the paper down starting at one edge and smoothing as you go.
Next, I looked for some words from my message on the front. I wanted it to be fun and kitschy without looking too much like a ransom note. One word I had trouble finding was “Hi,” so I cut it out of “Hill.” I also wanted to add hearts but couldn’t find any, so I cut them out of other patches of red I found through the magazine.
For the inside, I could have also used a background that is more easily writable than the cardboard on the inside of a cereal box — a sheet of printer paper, for example — but frankly, I was tired of gluing and liked the earthy aesthetic. I found a few other photos from the magazine that I liked and layered them over one another to make the inside more interesting. I wrote Brina a heartfelt message saying that I missed her and hoped to see her soon (and that yes, this was another one of my work projects).
I slipped my upcycled letter into the mail and waited to see if Brina received it. Feeling especially cheeky, I decided not to tell her it was coming, either.
That was on April 10. For the next few weeks, I bugged Brina regularly about whether she had received anything interesting in the mail, to no avail. Eventually, she caught on that I had sent her something fun, so the disappointment grew on both ends.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the U.S. Postal is struggling right now, and the situation seems especially dire in New York City. In an interview with Vox, one postal worker said that many workers have left because of fears of the coronavirus, so the agency is understaffed. Brina told me she had several packages that had been lost somewhere along the pipeline that she had no hope of tracking down, either. After about three weeks of checking in, we both decided to give up on the postal experiment.
But then, on May 4, I received a text from Brina.
“YOUR LETTER CAME,” it read. “It’s mangled and literally open but it’s HERE!”
She texted me a picture of my DIY envelope, torn at the top (perhaps because I did not glue it securely enough, or perhaps because the magazine page was too flimsy), covered in ink and with my address label peeling off (note to self: tape that down securely next time). Still, the card was in one piece and the mail had been delivered, however late, to her New York City apartment in the middle of the pandemic’s epicenter.
“YOUR WORK PROJECTS ARE GREAT,” she texted.
“I’m happy you like it hehe :),” I replied.
My tried-and-true takeaways
Making a DIY envelope and card is a fun way to keep your hands busy and surprise your friends and family with a little creativity and care. Especially if you are sending your mail across state lines, though, don’t expect it to arrive promptly. Sometimes, though, the wait is half the fun.