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Snail mail or smail (from snail + mail)—named after the snail with its slow speed—refers to letters and missives carried by conventional postal delivery services. Also named after the "snail-trail" used to glue the envelope. The phrase refers to the lag-time between dispatch of a letter and its receipt, versus the virtually instantaneous dispatch and delivery of its electronic equivalent, e-mail.
It is also known, more neutrally, as paper mail, postal mail, land mail, or simply mail and post. An earlier term of the same type is surface mail, coined retrospectively after the development of airmail. This happened between the 1970s to 1990s.
Snail mail penpals are those penpals that communicate with one another through the postal system, rather than on the internet which has become the more common medium.
Some online groups also use paper mail through regular gift or craft hot topics. In some countries, services are available to print and deliver emails to those unable to receive email, like people with no computers or internet access.
Similar terminology was used in the 1840s to contrast the already-operating postal mail with the new telegraph. The Philadelphia North American stated: "The markets will no longer be dependent upon snail paced mails".
According to Merriam-Webster, the first use of the term "snail mail" was in 1983. The phrase was in existence for decades earlier, but meaning slow mail as opposed to meaning human delivered mail. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the old system of delivering mail was referred to as snail mail in 1983 as a comparison to electronic mail (email).
The term was used by the U.S. Post Office in magazine advertising in the mid to late 1960s to encourage use of zip codes. Ads for zip code use appeared in many issues of LOOK, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post magazines and displayed a caricature of a large snail outfitted as a letter carrier, with the term "Snail Mail" in bold lettering.
In Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City, first broadcast in 1981, a snail delivering mail to Strawberry Shortcake, says, "Your snail mail is here." The mail has taken six weeks to get to Strawberry.
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