Amish Circle Letters

The Original “Reply to All”?

There is a letter-writing custom among the Amish that is largely unknown in the rest of the culture. It is called a “circle letter.” It works like this:

Someone writes a letter to a group of people, along with a list of addresses of the people who will be included in the “circle.” The person who starts it then sends it to the second person on the list, who adds a letter to the first one, and sends it to the third person on the list, and so on. Let’s say there are six people in the group. The sixth person now adds a letter and sends it on to the first person on the list. So now the circle has made one complete round, and there will always be six letters in the pack that is sent around the circle. Each person takes out their “old” letter and replaces it with a new one, so the news is “fresh.” If someone wants to stop participating she will write that, cross her name off the list, and send it to the next person.

Usually there is something the people in a given circle letter have in common. My mother was in a circle letter with her siblings, and so was my father. I participated in a cousin circle letter and another one with fellow teachers. It is not as efficient as email, but it reflects the slower pace of Amish life and therefore fits the culture well. Perhaps it was the original “reply to all” option we have in our modern emails.


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