Remember how it was? You’d go to the letterbox and among the bills and bank statements, the flyers and advertisments, there would be a proper letter. You would know it immediately by the good-quality envelope, your name and address hand-written on the front, and the sender’s address inscribed on the back. Quite often the letter had the added attraction of being airmail, with foreign stamps and a whiff of the exotic.

A proper letter and you weigh it in your hand, and it’s thick and spongy and it comes all the way from London where your old school friend lives, or New York where another friend from school days has made her home. And you take it inside and lay it on the bench while you make yourself a coffee. Then you take your coffee and your letter to the couch, switch on the radiator, prop your feet on the pouffe, and you open your letter and you read it, you savour it word by word, line by line, page by page.

I knitted a vest for my London friend. She said that wearing a hand-knitted jumper – a woolly – showed that someone cared about you. I think a letter, a proper letter does much the same. After all, the writer took some considerable time to write to you – to you, and not someone else. And they did so not in any slap-dash fashion but thoughtfully. They selected what they would tell you – share with you – and how best to express it. Those communications borne by letters were written in privacy and contemplation and they were read in the same way. It is not surprising that relationships were cemented through letters.

I have had a number of significant correspondents in my life. At one time several hours a week would be spent communicating with these friends. Even after email became part of the everyday world I continued writing letters to special friends. And then, over a period of time, instead of proper letters that weigh in the hand and give a throb to the heart, I started writing letter-like emails. But it’s not the same. It’s not the same at all.



One of the characters in my novel-in-progress, The Science of Departures, collects letters. Her name is Sylvie and she was born in 1930. At the time she appears in the novel it is 1987 and she has a cache of 200 letters written by strangers. She finds her letters in the pages of secondhand books, she finds them in cigar boxes at opp shops. The first letters of her collection she discovered in her kitchen when the lino was being replaced. There they were among the layers of newspaper that formed the old underlay.

In imagining these letters that Sylvie collects I was reminded of onion skin paper. This was airmail paper that I used back in the 1980s: fine, tissue-thin paper with a wrinkly surface. It was gorgeous to write on, and one of life’s sensual experiences. I decided to buy a pad of this paper, remind myself of its pleasures.

I was shocked to discover that such a thing no longer exists. All airmail paper has gone the way of the tape cassette. I could find light-weight, hand-made Japanese paper; I could find light-weight cotton paper, but my searches – world-wide – for onion skin paper left me disappointed. I managed to source from Amazon paper that purported to be onion skin, but when it arrived it was smooth not wrinkled and the ink bled on its surface. It was definitely not onion skin.

Finally, I found not one, but two packs of onion skin paper and envelopes, one green and the other white. Both were available from WHY NOT COLLECT IT,  a secondhand store in Haliburton, Ontario, Canada, and listed on ebay. By this time in my searches my desire for onion skin paper was urgent. It was no longer a choice. I had to have it.

I registered with ebay. So impatient was I for the onion skin paper I did not bother with reading the ebay guidelines. I was the first bidder on both packs of paper. Twenty-four hours later I was informed I’d been outbid on both. I couldn’t believe it. Who else in the world would want, would need this paper as much as I did. I increased my bid only to discover I was still outbid. I then noticed something about auto-bidding, at which point I took a quick lesson from an ebay aficionado. With 5 days to go before bidding stopped I put in maximum bids for both items and let the ebay auto-gremlins do the work. Twenty-four hours passed. I was still the highest bidder. Another twenty-four and I was still the front-runner. And so through the third and fourth and final days and then I was informed I’D WON. The paper was mine.

Three weeks later, the package arrived from Canada. The paper is exactly right – although in single sheets rather than the pad I used back in the 1980s. A few weeks ago I started writing letters to an old friend (to whom I used to write decades ago). He lives in the next suburb but one and I could stroll to his place in under an hour. It doesn’t matter. He possesses writing paper and a fountain pen and a very fetching italic script. He will be the first recipient of my beautiful onion-skin paper, purchased for purposes of research but affording enormous pleasure at the hand of the researcher.

Basildon Onion Skin Paper

Basildon Onion Skin Paper


  1. mary nastasi

    Andrea what a delight it is to read about this precious time when things were simple and meaningful Funny this last weekend during a spring clean of books and notes I found some of these old letters Guess while I am alive I will cherish them I have a tendency to keep all written material as a kind of respect

    1. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

      That’s just it. Letters are records, testimony of a life – and why library archives are full of them. In today’s busy, multi-tasking world, writing a letter, unlike an email or twitter, slows one down, focuses attention – and will probably justify a rereading in the years to come.

  2. Julie Amsberg

    Oh dear. Memories of that onion skin paper and even more, those horrible aerograms, revive the persistent guilt I used to feel when I had failed to send the expected letter home when living abroad. And now I feel obliged to store the shoeboxes full of those which my mother dutifully
    kept. I love email and Facebook and have discarded all sentimental feelings of other ways.
    I agree though, that the feel of a fountain pen forming the words on paper cannot be replicated.

  3. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    You make me laugh, Julie. I, too, wrote those obligatory aerogrammes, but writing letters NOW, through choice, is very very different. I’m really enjoying it, and so are the recipients. I sent letters to my nieces, both in their 20s. They were so excited to receive a proper letter. There’s something special and private about letters, and so blatantly opposed to the digital world, that to engage in letter writing these days is almost a subversive act. I plan to write another piece about the power of letters in the next few weeks..

  4. Julie Amsberg

    I don’t know the protocol of these things and if one is allowed two comments, but I was thinking about all this this arvo, when walking out on country in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, where I teach from time to time. I know people here who do write letters and receive replies from kind and loving family and friends. There being a dearth of cafe life and other whitefella entertainments, this enables them to feel a frisson of anticipation on Tuesdays when the mail plane comes.
    Of course, only a hand written letter is possible when deep emotion is involved. There might still be some merit in it. I look forward to your next piece.

    1. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

      I felt myself slowing down just reading your comment: the walking alone through the vast old country, waiting for the mail on Tuesdays. This is life writ large. The pleasures are so obvious. I don’t know the protocol either – but am happy that it yields gems like yours. Thank you.


      Andrea Goldsmith http://andreagoldsmith.com.au


  5. Judy

    I have just read Epistolary Pleasures following your prompt last week. I have been a letter writer since childhood. It gave this somewhat inconspicuous middle child a “voice”. I remember a difficult conversation looming with my mother some years ago so i wrote to her to soften her up. When the conversation happened it was easy. Letter writing had done the job.Occasionally I leave a letter on the pillow of the person I live with. Ask any pharmacist who is worth his or her salt, crinkled paper is a wonderful sedative, or whatever. As I stare down my seventh decade I remember fondly the penfriend of my adolescence and wish I still had one. Penfriend, that is, spare me the adolescence.

  6. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    I absolutely agree about the adolescence, I’d probably dump the 20s as well! But yes, a letter can do so much more than a phone call, a face-to-face, and certainly more than a text or email. A letter on a pillow, in the letter box, it speaks so clearly and richly, and the effect goes beyond the words. Once, when my beloved was going away, the first trip alone after cancer treatment, I wrote 4 or 5 letters and slipped them into the suitcase, between T-shirts and pants and pyjamas, to be found and read during the 3 weeks of the trip.


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