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

Article excerpt

The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America David M. Henkin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Reading David M. Henkin's thought-provoking and elucidating social history of the U.S. Postal System, one can't help but consider the vast distance our society has traveled in terms of the transmission of news and personal messages in the past 150 years. Not only did Americans need to spend large amounts of money in order to post a letter from one city to the next, but that letter might also take several weeks to arrive. What we take so much for granted now was at one time a remarkably innovative and unusual activity.

It wasn't just the cost, though, or the time. Henkin also examines how the culture changed to accept what a letter could be. No longer was it merely a way of doing business or a means of communicating tragic events, such as family deaths. This century showed the development of the letter to something that was personal and intimate, something both the letter writer and the recipient would see as special and unique. This form of communication was unknown to most nineteenth-century citizens. They needed to gain confidence in both the form and the significance of the personal letter. Henkin provides plenty of statistics to back up his arguments about the fantastic growth and development of the Postal System during the nineteenth century. By the end of century, postal usage was not just a convenience; it was an expectation.

That expectation may never have been higher than it was during, first, the movement west, especially during the Gold Rush of the 184Os; and, second, during the Civil War. During these times of great separation and great anxiety, both those who were away and those who were left behind developed a deep longing for any form of communication. Henkin has unearthed several copies of letters exchanged by lovers, by friends, and by family members, letters expressing the significance of the contact, even if it were to take several weeks to arrive. …