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

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

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

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


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.


It has become commonplace—almost to the point of being unfashionable—to describe electronic mail, faxes, video conferences, automated banking, and other communications media of recent vintage as agents in a millennial refashioning of current sensibility and subjectivity. New technologies, we often observe, have altered our experiences of time and space and unsettled the boundaries separating persons, communities, and nations. Against the backdrop of this particular strand of cultural self-consciousness, older forms of communication can appear quaint and even reassuring. the traditional posted and stamped letter—what enthusiasts of the new media call “snail mail”—seems so slow, so heavy, and so material by current technological standards that it is sometimes hard to remember that we still rely on the U.S. Postal Service for much of our daily business and many of our daily pleasures. Even in an age of digital information, the postal system remains a central and almost wondrous institution. For a very small fee, an elaborate national bureaucracy comes to our homes and workplaces and delivers objects of our choosing virtually anywhere in the country and to countless foreign locales. Linking distant individuals in a web of regular exchanges and tethering them to networks of institutional power, the postal system fulfills several of the cultural functions attributed to newer media, if at a significantly slower pace. If the posted letter appears in the role of dinosaur in many dramatic accounts of global social change, it nonetheless continues to play an intensely modern function in everyday life.

The following chapters push this claim further. a postal network that became popular during the middle of the nineteenth century laid the cultural foundation, as I hope to demonstrate, for the experiences of interconnectedness that are the hallmarks of the brave new world of telecommunications. What is most odd about this argument is probably not that it anchors current phenomena in the bygone antebellum era. Apart from the fact that historians are always in the habit of pressing paternity suits for newborn social arrangements against the periods of . . .

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