Recently I received a gift from a penpal that included a pad of Life Airmail paper ($6.50 for 50 sheets at JetPens) and the corresponding Airmail envelopes ($4.50 for 10 envelopes at Jet Pens). Immediately I had flashbacks to days in elementary school when I had an international penpal and used airmail paper. I wasn’t a great penpal back then. But I did love the stationery! Airmail as a service was actually discontinued in 1975 when it was brought under the United States Postal Service, but fans of the stationery can still find it today.
Airmail paper and envelopes were specifically designed to be as lightweight as possible, and the paper was often referred to as onion skin paper (just for the resemblance. It was not made from onions). Weight was an essential feature when using an airmail service for delivering mail more quickly, either within the US or overseas. Every portion of an ounce counted – paper is heavy!
As for Airmail or onion skin paper, this material typically weighs around 25-40 gsm (grams per square meter). Compare that to the typical Rhodia paper (80 gsm) or even Tomoe River paper (52 or 68 gsm). The paper is wonderfully crinkly and crisp and also transparent. Some may be turned off by this translucence, thinking that it makes text difficult to read, but I have not found it to be an issue. In fact, if a piece of dark paper is placed under the sheet, you can even write on both sides. You can see in the photo below – the paper is barely there. This also makes it the best paper to use with a template (thoughtfully provided with the pad, one side for horizontal and the other for vertical lines) while writing; your writing looks neat and straight without the lines.
To test how the paper stands up to ink, I used plenty of varieties. Bungubox Sapphire produced a stunning sheen, more than I usually see on Tomoe paper. the Pilot Precise V5 pens both had a slight issue with feathering. There was no feathering with either of the fountain pen inks; Robert Oster Blue-Black showed wonderful shading as well. The Sharpie was what shocked me. I don’t think I’ve found a type of paper that can take Sharpie marker without bleed-through. I have now found the first. Even though it is the brightest writing that can be seen on the back side of the sheet, the Sharpie never bled through the paper.
Later, I tried a light watercolor wash. The paper took the paint well, it dried quickly and the color stayed true. Show-through was present but not terrible. However, the paper did wrinkle significantly.
The texture of Life Airmail paper is wonderful in my opinion. It isn’t the type of paper you would want to have in a library — it is loud when handled! Imagine thin wrapping paper or thick tissue paper used for gifts. Writing on the paper, however, does not make noise. I found every writing instrument easy to use, the paper has a slight tooth to it, ink dries quickly and doesn’t smear. When using the entire page, you may want to use another piece of paper to protect the sheet beneath your hand from oils; by the end of the letter, your pen could start skipping if your hand has left anything behind.
The Life Airmail envelopes are also quite lightweight and are lined with a safety layer to prevent wandering eyes from reading your mail. I use a Pilot Address Pen ($2.50 from Jet Pens) that is waterproof and loved by Post Office machines everywhere. The envelopes took the ink without bleed-through. One thing to be careful with, however: do not lick the envelope to seal it. Instead, remove the piece of paper protecting the ready-to-go adhesive. If you lick this paper, you will feel quite silly and hope no one was watching.
I did learn that international envelopes were not only made of very thin paper, but the red and blue stripes on the edges signaled to those sorting the mail that this was a letter from the US (or England – they used the same colors) and was to be sorted into the international mail pile.
Overall, I highly recommend this paper pad and envelopes. The texture and tactile feel of the paper gives a little extra specialness to correspondence. For $11, you can make your next ten letters bring a bigger smile to those on the receiving end and enjoy the writing of those letters a bit more.
If you would like to know more about the history of Airmail, especially the messy details, I highly recommend this article!
Disclaimer: Everything from this review was purchased by me. Ok, it was actually purchased by my penpal and sent to me. But it was a gift, so it still counts as mine. Thank you, Penpal!