Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America

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Overview

Americans commonly recognize television, e-mail, and instant messaging as agents of pervasive cultural change. But many of us may not realize that what we now call snail mail was once just as revolutionary. As David M. Henkin argues in The Postal Age, a burgeoning postal network initiated major cultural shifts during the nineteenth century, laying the foundation for the interconnectedness that now defines our ever-evolving world of telecommunications. 

This fascinating history traces these shifts from their beginnings in the mid-1800s, when cheaper postage, mass literacy, and migration combined to make the long-established postal service a more integral and viable part of everyday life. With such dramatic events as the Civil War and the gold rush underscoring the importance and necessity of the post, a surprisingly broad range of Americans—male and female, black and white, native-born and immigrant—joined this postal network, regularly interacting with distant locales before the existence of telephones or even the widespread use of telegraphy. Drawing on original letters and diaries from the period, as well as public discussions of the expanding postal system, Henkin tells the story of how these Americans adjusted to a new world of long-distance correspondence, crowded post offices, junk mail, valentines, and dead letters.

The Postal Age paints a vibrant picture of a society where possibilities proliferated for the kinds of personal and impersonal communications that we often associate with more recent historical periods. In doing so, it significantly increases our understanding of both antebellum America and our own chapter in the history of communications.

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Editorial Reviews

New England Quartely
"The Postal Age develops a strong case for studying the developmental interplay of communcation technologies, publics, and practices of reading, seeing, and writing as constitutive of self, other, and nation."

— Derek W. Vaillant

Richard Wightman�Fox

The Postal Age succeeds in joining two kinds of history writing: the thoroughly professional and the engagingly popular. David M. Henkin offers a clinic in how to combine social analysis of institutions with cultural study of the rituals, emotions, and meanings by which people pattern their lives.”

Richard R. John

The Postal Age is a remarkable achievement. With elegance, analytical precision, and a firm command of the sources, Henkin shows how mid-nineteenth century Americans became a nation of letter-writers.  In so doing, he offers fresh insights into several well-known events—including the Gold Rush and the Civil War—while inviting us to ponder the extent to which the postal system, and not the electric telegraph, laid the cultural foundations not only for modern telecommunications, but also for the habits of interconnectedness that are such a touchstone of modernity.” Richard R. John, author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse
author of Going Nucular: Language Nunberg

“David Henkin’s The Postal Age is a brilliant successor to his earlier City Reading, and continues his insightful investigations of communications and social life. The Postal Age is engagingly written, rich with anecdotes and observations that dramatize and illuminate the manifold facets of 'postal culture' in the antebellum United States. Americans took advantage of a growing and increasingly accessible postal system to exchange money, news, seeds, daguerreotypes, love letters, and anonymous valentines (not to mention the earliest forms of spam and junk mail), transforming courtship, commerce, and civic life. At every stage, Henkin avoids the temptations of crass determinism to offer a nuanced view of the complicated relationships between technologies and systems and social forms. The Postal Age is a major contribution to American social history and to the history of communications in general.” Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times
New England Quartely - Derek W. Vaillant

"The Postal Age develops a strong case for studying the developmental interplay of communcation technologies, publics, and practices of reading, seeing, and writing as constitutive of self, other, and nation."
Choice

"This rich study is well referenced. . . . Highly recommended."

New England Quarterly

"The Postal Age develops a strong case for studying the developmental interplay of communication technologies, publics, and practices of reading, seeing, and writing as constitutive of self, other, and nation. . . . By sensitively addressing the cultural implications of changing patterns of participation and use of mail exchange, [the book] advances scholarship on the role of the post in everyday life."

— Derek W. Valliant

Journal of American History

"Henkin's engaging, well-written book ought to receive a wide readership. . . . He shows that today's expectations of ubiquitous and instant accessibility have their social and cultural roots in the nineteenth-century post office. Similarly, Henkin reminds us that advances in the speed and reliability of communications often occur through political will and administrative initiatives, with no new technological innovations. Finally, Henkin provides a valuable model for understanding the social and cultural history of a new communications medium, by explaining how individuals encountered, understood, and wove it into the fabric of their lives."—David Hochfelder, Journal of American History

— David Hochfelder

Reviews in American History

"Henkin is something of a model for at once taking seriously and moving beyond his theoretical sources; by engaging the complex particulars of the past, he produces a more compelling account of the making and remaking of American public life. . . . What Henkin is in the process of achieving—with City Reading and The Postal Age as the first two parts—is a thoroughgoing reimagining of the inner worlds of antebellum Americans. . . . Like Tocqueville, Henkin manages to suggest a proper note of awe in the face of the communications revolution of the middle of the nineteenth century. There is something similarly wondrous about his achievement in this book." —David Quigley, Reviews in American History

— David Quigley

Fresh Air

"For the first half century of [the U.S. Postal Service's] founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. . . . That all changed in 1845 when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence. They set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in an engaging new book called The Postal Age."—Geoff Nunberg, Fresh Air

— Geoff Nunberg

Business History Review

"Here is a postal culture that will seem all too familiar to modern readers. Here are the real roots of our interconnected age."

— Robert MacDougall

Journal of the Early Republic

"Henkin's is that rare book suitable for undergraduates, instructive to graduate students, and useful for any scholar of nineteenth-century America. . . . Ultimately, Henkin has written an original, ambitious, compelling, and elegant book that should spur greater scholarly attention to the history of communications in nineteenth-century America."—Konstantin Dierks, Journal of the Early Republic

— Konstantin Dierks

Fresh Air
For the first half century of [the U.S. Postal Service's] founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. . . . That all changed in 1845 when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence. They set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in an engaging new book called The Postal Age.

— Geoff Nunberg

Journal of the Early Republic
Henkin's is that rare book suitable for undergraduates, instructive to graduate students, and useful for any scholar of nineteenth-century America. . . . Ultimately, Henkin has written an original, ambitious, compelling, and elegant book that should spur greater scholarly attention to the history of communications in nineteenth-century America.

— Konstantin Dierks

Choice

"This rich study is well referenced. . . . Highly recommended."
Reviews in American History
Henkin is something of a model for at once taking seriously and moving beyond his theoretical sources; by engaging the complex particulars of the past, he produces a more compelling account of the making and remaking of American public life. . . .  What Henkin is in the process of achieving—with City Reading and The Postal Age as the first two parts—is a thoroughgoing reimagining of the inner worlds of antebellum Americans. . . . Like Tocqueville, Henkin manages to suggest a proper note of awe in the face of the communications revolution of the middle of the nineteenth century. There is something similarly wondrous about his achievement in this book.—David Quigley, Reviews in American History

— David Quigley

Business History Review
Here is a postal culture that will seem all too familiar to modern readers. Here are the real roots of our interconnected age.

— Robert MacDougall

New England Quarterly
The Postal Age develops a strong case for studying the developmental interplay of communication technologies, publics, and practices of reading, seeing, and writing as constitutive of self, other, and nation. . . . By sensitively addressing the cultural implications of changing patterns of participation and use of mail exchange, [the book] advances scholarship on the role of the post in everyday life.

— Derek W. Valliant

Journal of American History
Henkin's engaging, well-written book ought to receive a wide readership. . . . He shows that today's expectations of ubiquitous and instant accessibility have their social and cultural roots in the nineteenth-century post office. Similarly, Henkin reminds us that advances in the speed and reliability of communications often occur through political will and administrative initiatives, with no new technological innovations. Finally, Henkin provides a valuable model for understanding the social and cultural history of a new communications medium, by explaining how individuals encountered, understood, and wove it into the fabric of their lives.

— David Hochfelder

Fresh Air - Geoff Nunberg

"For the first half century of [the U.S. Postal Service's] founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. . . . That all changed in 1845 when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence. They set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in an engaging new book called The Postal Age."
Journal of the Early Republic - Konstantin Dierks

"Henkin's is that rare book suitable for undergraduates, instructive to graduate students, and useful for any scholar of nineteenth-century America. . . . Ultimately, Henkin has written an original, ambitious, compelling, and elegant book that should spur greater scholarly attention to the history of communications in nineteenth-century America."
Reviews in American History - David Quigley

"Henkin is something of a model for at once taking seriously and moving beyond his theoretical sources; by engaging the complex particulars of the past, he produces a more compelling account of the making and remaking of American public life. . . .  What Henkin is in the process of achieving—with City Reading and The Postal Age as the first two parts—is a thoroughgoing reimagining of the inner worlds of antebellum Americans. . . . Like Tocqueville, Henkin manages to suggest a proper note of awe in the face of the communications revolution of the middle of the nineteenth century. There is something similarly wondrous about his achievement in this book." —David Quigley, Reviews in American History

Business History Review - Robert MacDougall

"Here is a postal culture that will seem all too familiar to modern readers. Here are the real roots of our interconnected age."
New England Quarterly - Derek W. Valliant

"The Postal Age develops a strong case for studying the developmental interplay of communication technologies, publics, and practices of reading, seeing, and writing as constitutive of self, other, and nation. . . . By sensitively addressing the cultural implications of changing patterns of participation and use of mail exchange, [the book] advances scholarship on the role of the post in everyday life."

Journal of American History - David Hochfelder

"Henkin's engaging, well-written book ought to receive a wide readership. . . . He shows that today's expectations of ubiquitous and instant accessibility have their social and cultural roots in the nineteenth-century post office. Similarly, Henkin reminds us that advances in the speed and reliability of communications often occur through political will and administrative initiatives, with no new technological innovations. Finally, Henkin provides a valuable model for understanding the social and cultural history of a new communications medium, by explaining how individuals encountered, understood, and wove it into the fabric of their lives."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226327211
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2007
  • Pages: 238
  • Sales rank: 410,199
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David M. Henkin is associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of City Reading.

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Read an Excerpt

THE POSTAL AGE THE EMERGENCE OF MODERN COMMUNICATIONS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA
By DAVID M. HENKIN
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-32720-4



Chapter One BECOMING POSTAL

A COMMUNICATIONS REVOLUTION IN ANTEBELLUM AMERICA

Not all shifts in the popular experience of space and time during the nineteenth century took the historical stage amid fanfare and pageantry. Compared to the laying of a transoceanic cable or the first journey of a steam-powered train, the spread of mail practices and mail culture unfolded discreetly in countless scenes that barely obtrude upon the historical record. Sitting in Charleston, South Carolina, on a Tuesday in 1856, Caroline Pettigrew addressed her mother, located on a plantation in the northwest corner of the state, with the confidence that "if I write to you by today's post the letter will be received on Friday." Though a young woman of some means, Pettigrew was not alone in imagining that she enjoyed relatively direct and predictable access to people who lived at a distance. By mid-century ordinary men and women throughout the United States made similar, deceptively simple recalculations of how they might regularly communicate with people they did not see.

Conventionally, the history of communications has been understood as a series of disruptive, technology-driven increases in the speed at which people can transmit information. From this perspective, the importance of the 1840s to communications history lies in the introduction of the electromagnetic telegraph or perhaps in the spread of railroad service-not in postal service as such. Dan Headrick, in his study of the history of information, points out that this technological bias in most accounts of the origins of what we like to call telecommunications obscures earlier, less flashy breakthroughs in information exchange, such as the optical telegraph systems of the eighteenth century, which did not rely on new forms of power. But the limitation of standard definitions of telecommunications is more fundamental. From the perspective of everyday life (as opposed to scientific experimentation), it is difficult to establish a trans-historical criterion by which to distinguish modern telecommunication from long-distance communication more generally. Although there may be a clear difference between modes of contact that appear to users as instantaneous (smoke signals, telegraphs, telephones, electronic mail) and those that involve a perceptible time lag (carrier pigeon, bike messenger, DHL air courier), any other dividing line runs the risk of being arbitrary. The ability of locomotive trains or optical telegraph relays to carry information faster than the "speed of a galloping horse or the fastest sailing ship" (which might be a reasonable threshold for those interested in the history of technical solutions to social problems) did not produce instantaneous communication, nor did the invention of jet airplanes. If we are interested in the cultural impact of long-distance communication systems, we must assess the significance of something like the railroad in terms of the ways in which new expectations of contact and feelings of proximity emerged around rail transport, not whether the railroad dispensed with animal fuel or exceeded allegedly natural rates of movement. The same standard applies to all forms of long-distance contact.

For social, cultural, and political history, the important question is not how fast information travels in absolute terms or relative to previous records for land speed, but how new media connect physically separated parties within a shared temporal framework. Whether or not surpassing the gallop of a horse creates new experiences of contemporaneity and proximity will obviously vary with historical context and can only be determined by sustained inquiries into local practices and sources. The galloping post riders of the Persian Empire may well deserve a more important place in the cultural history of what we call telecommunications than do faster conveyances in other times and places that did not have as profound an impact on the spread of imperial authority or on ordinary experience of contemporary events. Popular confusion over the significance of the Pony Express (which was a short-lived publicity venture by a private firm that postdated the use of steam railroads) reflects in part the widespread assumption that the crucial threshold of telecommunications was crossed when horses were replaced by machines. But to figure out the kind of communications world that Americans inhabited during the middle of the nineteenth century, we must suspend these assumptions. And the relative importance of the post, the railroad, and the telegraph to the experiences of distance in that world cannot be reduced to measures of speed. We would need to know, first, how accessible different systems were and to which uses they were put. The large claims made in this chapter for the mid-century post as a modern communications network rest on such considerations of access and use.

Before the advent of cheap postage, mail was not a regular feature of everyday life for most Americans. It was not that the institution was insignificant. On the contrary, during the early national period the Post Office functioned for most Americans as the principal embodiment of the federal government and a powerful symbol of national connectedness. In the Jacksonian era, as Richard R. John has demonstrated, the post lay at the center of major political debates about political patronage, slavery, evangelical Protestantism, the marketplace, sectional conflict, federal power, and moral responsibility. In addition, the government's commitment to postal service formed part of the foundation for commercial growth. But the political and economic significance of the mail did not translate into a widespread postal culture. Throughout the first third of the century, most Americans (with the significant exception of merchants) neither exchanged mail nor organized their daily lives around the expectation of postal contact.

During the early decades of the history of the U.S. Post Office, mail was relatively slow, and systems of collection and retrieval were highly irregular. Receiving a letter was, for most Americans, an event rather than a feature of ordinary experience. Personal correspondence might therefore travel along a variety of informal circuits, as illustrated by the experience of Abner Sanger, a New Hampshire farmer and day laborer in 1794. Having been informed (presumably by a personal acquaintance) at some point in early June that a letter from his brother in northern Vermont was waiting for him in the Boston post office, Sanger asked a local storekeeper to pick it up for him when he next visited the city. In the meantime, however, Sanger's wife's cousin had seen the letter and picked it up. At this point Sanger knew that the letter was headed for the town of Keene, ten miles away from where he was currently farming, but it was not until July 27 that he arrived in Keene to inquire (unsuccessfully) in all of the public houses and streets for the whereabouts of the elusive epistle. Another ten days passed before Sanger's own son appeared with the letter, having received it from the brother of the storekeeper whom Sanger assigned the task of retrieving it. Historian Richard D. Brown cites the two-month odyssey of this fraternal correspondence to demonstrate the importance attached to letters in the early national era, but this compelling anecdote also suggests how poorly prepared most Americans were for the exchange of mail. Sanger's frustrations say nothing about the slowness of the mails as such (since the letter may have arrived at its official destination in the Boston post office with great dispatch); rather, they reflect a society in which postal correspondence took place without what later generations would regard as adequate supplemental circuits of information. To put it another way, letter-writing was not yet common enough to warrant daily habits of inquiry and delivery.

Whether or not letters lay unretrieved in post offices or circulated haphazardly along networks of personal acquaintance, the time lag involved in transmitting mail at the beginning of the century was too great to encourage regular correspondence over great distances. A letter's roundtrip journey between Portland, Maine, and Savannah, Georgia, typically spanned forty days in 1799. Even a shorter journey, say between New York City and Canandaigua (near the Finger Lakes), took twenty days. Over the next ten years, improved roads and conveyances cut those rates substantially (to twenty-seven and twelve days respectively), but mail still traveled at a slow pace by the standards of just a couple of decades later. Even on short and well-worn routes, winter conditions often disrupted service well into the 1830s. Relatively lengthy and often unpredictable delays between sending a letter and receiving a response tended to underscore the distance between absent correspondents, many of whom wrote without expectation of a timely reply.

Others avoided the post altogether, preferring to communicate through individual travelers. In the 1780s, for example, Virginia physician Charles Mortimer relied upon informal and irregular modes of conveyance in order to correspond with his son Jack, an apprentice in Philadelphia. "You are in my debt several letters now," Mortimer admonished Jack in 1785, "and must watch out for families of Gentlemen coming here, and have your letters ready to go by them." The Mortimers' letters depended on the unpredictable mobility of particular persons and followed their trajectories. And, far from riding the impersonal waves of an open postal system, Jack's access to his father was mediated by forms of class privilege.

By far the most serious obstacle to widespread use of the mail before 1845, perhaps even for those with social access to "families of Gentlemen," was financial. Letter postage, which was assessed based on distance and the number of sheets enclosed, could be extremely costly (typically to the addressee, who most often bore the burden of postage prior to 1851). From 1816 to 1845, for example, the postage on a single-sheet letter traveling more than four hundred miles (say between Albany and Pittsburgh) would be twenty-five cents, or between one-quarter and one-third of the average daily wage of a nonfarm laborer. The postage on a letter from New York City to Troy in 1843 was more than 50 percent higher than the price of shipping a barrel of flour over the same route. (Letters sent outside the country were of course far more expensive and entailed multiple charges for the various stages of their journey.) There were, to be sure, plenty of correspondents who could afford such costs. Merchants depended on the transmission of orders and remittances through the mail, and the potential profits of long-range transactions could easily absorb the postage. Wealthy individuals might not even bother to make such calculations of costs and benefits. John Pintard, the prosperous East India trader who founded many of New York's leading philanthropic and cultural institutions, corresponded frequently with his daughter in New Orleans from 1816 to 1833, paying both high postage rates and surcharges to penny posts for special delivery privileges.

Others managed to cut expenses. Anna Briggs Bentley, who migrated from Maryland to Ohio in 1826 and spent much of the century writing to her family, used various economizing strategies in the early decades of her correspondence, including crossing her letters-inscribing the second half of the letter at a ninety-degree angle between the lines of the first half in order to avoid paying postage for an additional sheet. Whenever possible, she would send letters outside the post, indulging her desire to exceed the ordinary limits upon epistolary communication. "This I expect will be forwarded by a private conveyance and save you the postage," she explained at the start of an especially lengthy 1826 letter back to Maryland. Bentley was also able to take advantage of the franking privileges of relatives working in the Post Office. In 1827 she promised to write more frequently now that her brother-in-law James Stabler had become the postmaster of Sandy Spring, near the family estate. Attaching a long missive to the entire family to a short note to Stabler, Bentley predicted that "James's kindness will remove the greatest barrier (the postage) to my writing very often." Franking privileges could not always be used without restraint, however. Bentley's husband Joseph became postmaster in 1828, but she cautioned her relatives against exploiting this opportunity. "As this is a newly established post office and very little business done," she wrote, "Joseph feels some scruple about so many free letters yet awhile; for there is seldom anything goes or comes but to and from us, and he fears it will appear altogether a matter of self-interest in soliciting for the office." Separate letters from "the dear children," Bentley maintained, would be a frivolous luxury that might arouse suspicion, especially in an era when personal correspondence was relatively infrequent.

For those without wealth or access to special franking privileges, there was a great temptation to seek a way around the high postal tariffs. Since postage between Roxana Watts's home in Peacham, Vermont, and that of her daughter and son-in-law in Jackson, Michigan, ran twenty-five cents per sheet in 1843, Watts sent a box and a letter through a man traveling to Detroit, who would deposit them in the post office. The letter advised her Michigan relatives to confirm receipt of the package by "mail[ing] a Paper and send[ing] it with some mark that we my [sic] know that they have got there." The practice of mailing a marked paper at the considerably lower newspaper rate of one cent, as discussed in the next chapter, was sufficiently common to provoke specific regulations and heightened vigilance on the part of the Post Office Department. Alternatively, letters might be smuggled by some other means into the addressee's post office, where they would be assessed at the drop letter rate of one cent-the fee for mail that entered and exited the same office. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, for example, New Yorkers would pay ship captains to carry letters to the Albany post office, which explains the high number of surviving letters from that period bearing Albany postmarks and New York datelines.

Wealthy customers, business exigencies, franking privileges, and clever subterfuges all contributed to the steady increase in American correspondence between 1790 and 1845, but the effects of high letter rates were nonetheless powerful. Compared to Great Britain, as advocates of cheap postage were fond of pointing out in the 1840s, people in the United States hardly mailed letters at all. And when they did, the complex and incremental pricing system tended to reinforce their sense that long-distance communication was for special occasions. The correspondence of the Callaghan siblings, who grew up in Virginia in the early part of the nineteenth century, reveals some of the strain of using the post to maintain family ties under conditions of high geographical mobility. Though one of the brothers was a postmaster (and thus could frank letters), the others were forced to pay high prices to stay in touch with one another as parts of the family moved to Missouri with the westward migration of slaveholders during the antebellum era. Not many of their twenty-five-cent letters between Virginia and Missouri survive, and those that do suggest a modest standard for family correspondence. "Your letter of the 25th. April came safe to hand a longtime after its date," wrote Oliver in Virginia to William in Missouri in a communication composed in late July of 1833 and posted in early August. The following June, Oliver wrote to William again. "I have rec'd your letter of the 13th, Nov. last a long time after its date, & have omitted to reply to it for sometime." None of the Callaghan siblings complained about the postage. Still, the leisurely pace of their correspondence was not unusual in an era when everyone understood that personal letters were luxury items.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE POSTAL AGE by DAVID M. HENKIN Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface....................ix
Acknowledgments....................xiii
Introduction....................1
PART ONE JOINING A NETWORK One Becoming Postal A COMMUNICATIONS REVOLUTION IN ANTEBELLUM AMERICA....................15
Two Mailable Matters FROM NEWS TO MAIL....................42
Three Playing Post Office MAIL IN URBAN SPACE....................63
PART TWO POSTAL INTIMACY Four Embracing Opportunities THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE PERSONAL LETTER....................93
Five Precious as Gold MOBILITY AND FAMILY IN THE GOLD RUSH AND CIVIL WAR....................119
Six Mass Mailings VALENTINES, JUNK MAIL, AND DEAD LETTERS....................148
Epilogue....................172
Notes....................177
Index....................219
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