Amish Circle Letters

If you’ve ever wondered how Amish circle letters work, Amish Heartland has a nice piece featuring input from an Amish man who writes them.

And if you’re just wondering what a circle letter is, it is a low-tech way by which Amish people with common connections keep in touch.

In a nutshell, each person in a circle letter group writes a letter, which is added to a batch of previous letters from others in the group. The whole batch is then sent on to the next person on the list, who does the same, and so on.

It’s like a pony express-speed forum, with participants often linked by common interests and circumstances.  There are circle letters for those dealing with trying situations (the authors of The Amish note circle letters for parents of children killed in accidents or open heart surgery patients, among others [see p. 238]), or those with common interests, such as for people who raise hosta plants, as mentioned in the Amish Heartland article.

Some are also based on arbitrary circumstances, such as having a common birth month, year, or name.  For example, I just took a look in some copies of The Diary and saw a request for circle letter participants with the same name born in a three-year span, and one for men born in August 1987.

Here are some interesting things about circle letters according to the Amish Heartland article:

  • Circle letters are advertised in Amish publications – as mentioned above, prospective circle letter writers may seek participants in Amish newspapers like The Diary or Die Botschaft
  • Letters are named and numbered – this helps keep them in order
  • If there’s a lot of interest, letters may be divided – the Amish interviewee explains that this happened in the case of a circle letter for previous and current male school teachers
  • Tardiness may be penalized – For holding the letters longer than a week, a penalty may be assessed, such as paying postage for the next few recipients

Circle letter participants may never meet, and since personal photos are not typical among Amish, may never even know what the other participants look like.  However some circle letter groups have reunions where participants can meet in person.  (update: the original article has been removed at source)

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    20 Comments

    1. Margaret

      I’m glad this practice is still going on.

      Even though I’m not Amish, my family did “family” circle letters when I was growing up in the 60s-70s. My mom did one with her sisters and parents, and I did one with all my cousins. It was always a special day when the letters arrived!

      1. CIrcle letters

        I did them with my cousins as well.. 🙂

    2. Mary Miller

      I “inherited” two circle letters when my parents passed away. One, of my Dad’s Siblings (12 in this one), and one of my Mom’s Miller cousins (14 in this one). I don’t know all the writers in the cousin one. Both of these sets of letters have been steadily passed down to the next generation, as the original writers pass away. Soon my Dad’s sibling letter will be a cousin letter!

    3. Alice Mary

      Love these!

      I love the concept of circle letters, though I’ve never communicated that way, myself. If nothing else, it helps sustain the Postal Service a bit longer (my husband is a retiree), as well as the art of letter-writing (and, I think, cursive writing). I’ve had a pen pal for 48 years this month, so writing (mostly by hand & stamp, although sometimes by email)has always been a favorite pasttime for me.

      What a treasure you have, Mary, in the circle letters you inherited. Might you be willing to share any examples of what was written about? They sound like hand written time capsules!

      Alice Mary

      1. Mary Miller

        Often the letters include news of any special family happenings, such as vacations taken, new babies born, or deaths of acquaintances. The weather may be noted, and whether gardens have been planted, etc. Since they travel all over the country, it can vary quite a bit!

    4. Julie Turner

      Circle Letters

      Hi Eric, In Australia, we call the circle letters round robins.
      I belong to a group and our letters frly from Australia to England, the USA and Canada.
      Each circle letter is on a different topic, for example gardening or hobbies.
      We get to meet people from all over the world and I have made some wonderful friends.

      1. Julie, sounds like a great name for circle letters. I can just hear “round robins” in an Australian accent. Nice to hear they go on outside of the Amish as well.

    5. Want to start a circle letter

      If you want to start a circle letter then contact me.
      My email is Cbliss 3 three 0 zero 4 nine @ yahoo dot com
      I live in Orlando, FL. and I am 53, like to garden, read, movies, TV, volunteer at the local hospital,
      I am single, like dogs, I have a Parakeet named Charlie that talks, and so on.
      Cindy

      1. Greta

        Sent you an email 🙂

      2. Barbara

        sounds like fun

        Cindy,

        What is your interest in the Amish?

        Thanks,

        Barb

    6. Juanita Cook

      Love the idea of circle letters. Wish I could get my family to do that.

    7. My cousins & I kept in touch by Circle Letters as well.. Some of them werent so great at keeping up.. usually the boys but we had fun with them.

    8. Melissa

      A Month of Letters

      In 2010, an author started, A Month of Letters’. Every February, she writes letters to anyone who requests one. Some times she keeps up her correspondences after February, to those who continue to write to her. This will be the third year in a row I have participated in what I believe is a beautiful way to keep letter writing alive.
      If you would like a letter from me, just head over to my blog (the link is built in to my name-I think) Just look for the highlight to show up when you move your mouse around my post and name.
      Put your name and address into the comments section at the end of any post and let me know you are participating in the ‘A Month of Letters’ and I will write to you. ALL ADDRESSES & NAMES ARE CONFIDENTIAL AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED ON MY BLOG.
      Ladies only please. Thank you!

      1. Melissa

        Here is my link

        http://duchessofcoloradosprings.blogspot.com/2014/02/i-forgot-it-is-month-of-letters-month.html

        It did not show up in m original comment.

    9. Ed from NY

      Question – who keeps the actual paper letters in a circle letter? Say there are twelve people in a “circle” . Person #12 would get an envelopes with twelve letters inside – one from everybody. But was does he or she do with it? Send all the letters on to person #1, along with person #12’s letter. But then does person #1 keep forwarding around an ever growing stack of letters? Person #1 could take out the old letters and just forward his or her new letter. But then people further down the circle would miss out on letters from those after themselves in the circle. Do participants wait until one of their own letters comes back to them, take that one out, add a new letter?

      However its done, sounds like good old fashioned, low tech fun. Sort of a primitive version of facebook.

      1. Ed the way you describe it in your final sentence is how it’s supposed to work…original writer removes his letter when the whole stack comes back around. That way everyone has had a chance to see it.

        1. Mary Miller

          You are correct, in that when the letters arrive, I read all of them, remove my letter from the last time, and write a new letter to add, always keeping them in their numerical order. I always send the letters to the same person, and always get them from another (same) person.

    10. Patty Tolliver

      Amish Circle Letters

      I once belonged to an online greeting card group. It was an international group. We made our cards and passed them around in the same manner as the circle letters but we called them round robins. You had to contribute two cards one for a member to choose and one for the person who started it. It was a lot of work but a lot of fun in the end. I love writing letters and wish I could get involved with a circle letter group.

    11. Once you put your letter in then who do you send it to ?Does postage get expensive?

    12. Elva Bontrager

      I am in Two Circle Letters

      My birth family has had one going for years and a cousin letter in my dad’s family is going strong. The cousin letter on my mother’s side petered out but someday someone will start it again.

      Postage doesn’t get too expensive. Each person’s letter generally is just one sheet so the only reason a letter might get too bulky and heavy is that more people have been added.

      The process is interesting. I remember when my mother’s generation were the primary participants in my birth family letter. As they died off, my own generation became the ‘old’ people and some of us have now died. Our current family letter now includes the third generation.