This South Philly Woman Will Handwrite a Letter to Anyone Who Asks

Prolific old-school corresponder Jean Merritt says she's handwritten many thousands of letters. You could be next.

jean merritt, the south philadelphia woman who will handwrite a letter to anybody’s who asks

Jean Merritt, the South Philadelphia woman who will handwrite a letter to anybody who asks (photo courtesy of Jean Merritt)

It happened earlier this week: A small card-sized envelope showed up in the mail, addressed to me from a woman named Jean Merritt, with a South Philadelphia return address. I was pretty sure I had never met anyone by that name, and given that both my wife and my son had birthdays recently, I thought perhaps the sender had intended the letter for one of them and accidentally put my first name instead of one of theirs. But I was wrong.

I opened the envelope, and inside was a handwritten (in meticulous cursive, no less) letter addressed to me on three different pieces of stationery — one plain beige paper, another piece whose back is a collage of various illustrations (a stag beetle, a skeleton key, a needle and thread), and the third a chart of poisonous mushrooms and plants.

“Dear Victor,” the letter began. “Thanks for responding to my offer of correspondence.”

It all started coming back to me. A couple of months ago, I saw a post in my Facebook feed from a woman named Jean Merritt saying she would send a handwritten letter to anybody who sent her a mailing address. So I did. And promptly forgot about it. She didn’t.

Her letter went on to explain that she has an overabundance of stationery. She wrote about upcoming spring bird migrations and good locations to observe them. She detailed some of her activities from a recent trip to South America. Merritt also lamented the nature of the news cycle, noting that she follows my writing for Philly Mag. (That makes two people!)

“It boggles the mind how fast so many news stories disappear,” she wrote. “For instance, the dead body found in the basement freezer of a home a block from my house came and went without giving us much information about the suspect.”

She closed:

Be safe. Be well.
May we meet someday,

Also included in the envelope: three small postcards depicting different species of birds.

I don’t remember the last time I received a handwritten letter, as opposed to a postcard or birthday card. And it made me feel sort of good inside. Somebody out there whom I’ve never met, taking the time to share thoughts and well-wishes by putting pen to paper, putting a stamp on an envelope, and entrusting it to the good old United States Postal Service — so contrary to our normal and impersonal immediate communiques, our texts and DMs.

“I’ve been writing letters since I was a little girl, and I never stopped,” explains Merritt, who moved to Philadelphia from Clinton County, Pennsylvania, about 30 years ago to find work. “My grandmother wrote letters. My mother wrote letters. And I write letters.”

She sure does. Merritt tells me she’ll write a letter to anybody who asks her to do so and invites people to make requests via, including a mailing address, obviously, and a bit of info so she has something to go on. (Merritt says you may not hear from her for a month or three, but that you’ll definitely hear from her.)

When she’s not writing letters to people who have requested them, she’s writing letters to people in nursing homes, through a program called Letters Against Isolation, and to people in prison.

Merritt says that part of her motivation is just to make human connections and spread joy. The other big part is her stationery problem.

“My mother collected stationery, and I’m still using the stationery I found in her house when she died in 2011,” she explains. “Plus, I see stationery on clearance, and I can’t resist it. And once people found out that I like to write letters, all I get for gifts is stationery. So yes, I have more than I will ever be able to use in this lifetime.”

But what about all that postage? Merritt says she bought a ton of Forever stamps long ago, and she also uses old uncanceled stamps, also from her mother’s collection.

“So maybe I’ll put a postcard stamp on an envelope and then add a bunch of three-cent stamps,” she notes. “As long as they are uncanceled, you can use them.”

Merritt usually includes postcards or pieces of stationery along with her letter, as she did to me. But she points out that the response rate through the mail is less than 10 percent. She says that most people do acknowledge the letters with an email or a text. But few take the time to write her a letter back. It’s not that she expects anything in return, mind you. She just hopes folks use the stationery to write a letter to somebody.

“If I can inspire one person to do the same and maybe reach out to somebody they haven’t talked to in a long time, it’s worth it,” Merritt insists. “Besides, doing this is also just really good for my brain.”