Henkin, The Postal Age

One: Becoming Postal: A Communications Revolution in Antebellum America

At the onset of this chapter, Henkin confronts a common narrative in the history of communication, one that sees “a series of disruptive, technology-driven increases in speed at which people can transmit information” as the centrally important factors in communication (r)evolutions. Rather, Henkin re-frames how we understand new technologies—such as the railroad—not necessarily for the ways such technologies “dispensed with animal fuel or exceed allegedly natural rates of movement”, but instead “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 the rail transport…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” (16). Moreover, it is not simply the existence of such technologies and their relative speed, but the social context in which people were able to access and use these different systems.

Looking at the history of letter-writing and the postal service might elucidate this framework to understand the history of communication and the role that technologies—its accessibility and use—and the systems that support those technologies play in how people imagined and enacted their social network. For instance, Henkin notes that while the Post Office functioned as a “powerful symbol of national connectedness”, in the early decades of the history of the U.S. Postal Service, “letter-writing was not yet common enough to warrant daily habits of inquiry and delivery” (17). Henkin points to lag times between great distances and the mail routes during Winter months disrupted service even more. Such unpredictable distance in time also emphasized distance in space as well. Also, postage was often very expensive. These constraints had an impact on how people attempted to connect with one another. For instance, some opted to use individual travellers to deliver epistles or, if one was to send a letter, they often employed “various economizing strategies…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” (19).

One of the reasons for the expensive rates for personal letters was that letter were the main source of revenue for the postal service in order for the U.S. Post Office to operate as a way for American society to remain centralized: “from its creation, the U.S. Post Office was committed principally to facilitating the wide circulation of political news, allowing an informed citizenry to live far from the metropolitan centers of government while remaining active in its affairs” (21). However, in the Northeast, there was greater interest in using the Postal Service not to emphasize political speech (as was typical), but for personal correspondence. The shift for cheaper postage was meant to allow greater numbers of people to use the post office to both offer a new business model for the Post Office as well as de-emphasize political speech as the post office’s primary purpose. Thus, with cheap postage, the purpose of the postal system had expanded.

Henkin sees the technological developments of travel and of communication technologies as operating in tandem in influencing the expansion and geographic mobility of Americans. As he writes, these technological developments both brought people and places in contact with both the market economy, but also allowed family and friends to live at a distance while keeping in regular correspondence with one another. Henkin notes that the developments of the railroad and especially the telegraph allowed for Americans to have experience major events synchronously: for example, pointing to a major boxing match, “telegraphed results for the boxing match…created a sense of instantaneous connection among boxing fans gathered at bars and newspaper offices throughout urban America. Americans who imagined that they were living in the same moment as fellow sports enthusiasts in another city were also more likely to turn to the post to conduct ongoing relationships with people they did not see” (23). So Henkin points to the ways the several communication technologies allowed social networks multiple ways to remain in contact with one another.

Another impact of these technological developments and mass participation in the post was mass literacy in the US: “the increasing availability and affordability of the post encouraged the acquisition, cultivation, and maintenance of literacy” (24). In particular Henkin points to the ways that slaves would have access to letters and—through walking to the post-office—would have time to learn to read (such as the addresses on the letter envelopes). Henkin, though, gives a good deal of attention to the ways that letters were a tool to help learn how to write: “on a simpler level, though, the striking recurrence of these admonitions and assessments provides a useful reminder of how mail habits and writing skills were mutually reinforcing during that period when Congress redefined he post as an affordable medium of mass communication” (25). However, as Henkin notes, illiteracy often wasn’t an impediment to participation in the post: there was often the use of intermediaries to help dictate and send letters. However, for African Americans, dictation and mediation was not always safe: “African Americans, both free and enslaved, were especially vulnerable to postal interference, which may have provided incentive to master the epistolary arts” (25).

Another impact of the developments of the postal service was the mobility of American society: “American’s modern postal culture emerged during when the relationship between persons and places in the United States was remarkably fluid. Images of perpetually mobile population, which dominated visitors’ accounts of the U.S. society before the Civil War, loomed large in the arguments of postal reformers for making mail service more broadly accessible” (28). Henkin notes that the postal service would serve the needs of U.S. society’s “large floating population” (29). “Mobility and postal reform were thus mutually reinforcing historical developments. Population dispersal encouraged reformers to imagine the post as a medium of regular communication for ordinary people, while cheap and uniform postage encouraged Americans to imagine that they might travel (and even relocate) without severing their existing social and familiar ties” (29). “Increased mobility enhanced the appeal, utility, and economic viability of a medium that would be redefined in the United Sates around the desire for ordinary people to communicate with those hwo lived elsewhere” (29). Henkin points to instances where families, separated by distance, were able to send one another mundane details of their lives in order to maintain contact.

Henkin concludes that the accessibility of contact with one’s social network through the mundane, everyday correspondence made possible by the postal service created a new way of life, one that Henkin notes is now taken for granted. “with the arrival of cheap, standardized, prepaid letter postage, mail was redefined as a popular network that embraced in principle anyone who could be expected to visit a post office. This network, as much as other, more celebrated developments in 19th century America, became the site and the engine of revolutionary changes in everyday experience” (38).


Two: Mailable Matters: From News to Mail

The focus of Henkin’s second chapter seems to address the ways the post functioned to create publics, in the sense of Warner. As he writes, the post was often associated with the press as a kind of broadcast medium, bringing news from afar in regular intervals. But in the 19th century, postal users began using the post to join an interactive network.

Henkin begins to discuss the way the post circulated newspapers, both in the form of subscription but also the ways individuals would mail newspapers “sharing their contents with distant relatives and friends, especially those who had migrated from their homes” (43). These kinds of newspapers were referred to as “transient newspapers”: “Part of the appeal of the transient newspaper was that it served as a souvenir of a distant place—somewhat like a postcard except that it ordinarily hailed from a familiar locale” (43). Correspondence seems to show how transient newspapers were a means for a distant person to be “transported” back home to the familiar. Henkin finds that such a practice was often considered on par with actual letter-writing: “the exchange of papers was a moment of social contact and an occasion for thinking about an absent friend or relative” (45).

This was also much more inexpensive than costly letters, before affordable postage. “The difference in price was sufficient to induce many postal users to see how far they might stretch the epistolary power of a printed journal” (47; see tactics from de Certeau). Despite federal legislature prohibiting writing on newspapers, it was a pervasive practice: postal users would mark notes on the margin or wrapper of the newspaper, conceal letters or memoranda in the articles, or use other various codes (a drawing of an awl pointed at a well might indicate “all is well”). These tactics employed by everyday users of the post became a kind of precedent to the revolutironary changes that would occur in postal exchanges: “For postal users who exchanged papers, the post was no longer simply a newsstand. It was, instead, a point of access to a world of social relations that required special gestures of solicitation and inquiry” (51). The post, through person correspondences, became a medium of mass participation.

During this wave of letter-writing from the individual writer, an emphasis or focus emerged on handwriting and the metonymic way handwriting represented the hand to bodily presence. The physical letter and the ‘voicing’ through handwriting became an affective affordance to this medium. “Handwritten letters bore the trace of physical contact and not simply the recognizable imprimatur of individual identity, but the physical person themselves. Likewise, this period also saw the widespread use of daguerreotype portraits: “Historians have largely ignored the historical connection between photography and the mail, but the roughly contemporaneous emergence of daguerreotype portraiture and cheap postage is striking, especially given the affinity between these two forms of paper respresntation” (59). The use of personal portraits by ordinary people and the use of personal letters became apart of a wider purpose of memorial or creating micro-histories.


Three: Playing Post Office: Mail in Urban Space

The focus of this chapter is to understand the role of the post office as a physical space in the wider American communication network. Postal spaces were distinguished by both their function and location: “Post offices became places where ordinary people congregated in order to participate in the increasingly inclusive practice of circulating mail…At post offices, both strangers and acquaintances were more like than elsewhere to encounter one another as they went about their daily business” (66). However, given the ways the post office was a congregation of strangers, a mass and shared activity, a way of rehersing a national ethos, it thus prompted particular habits or procedures of interaction.

“Visiting the post office was, in the period, a normatively masculine activity, its role in the division of sexual labor inculcated form a young age. Child-rearing advice form the 1860’s listed going to the post office among the light daily duties to which boys ought to be habituated around age eight or nine” (73). A number of factors contributed to inscribing the post office as a masculine affair: one of which had to do with how the post office was in the center of the city and became a site of often unexpected or indecent encounters. But also there was a general anxiety over the kind of privacy and potential secrecy of the post office. “Concern over unsupervised female correspondence had become commonplace by the middle of the nineteenth century” (63). However, the introduction of women into the postal office caused some problem and triggered some of these anxieties over indecency: “separate windows and entrances for men and women, which Blackwood’s Magazine saw as contributing to the dangerous secrecy of the American post office system, were intended primarily to protect women from the inconveniences and discomforts associated with entering a social space that was…’aggressively masculine in character’” (74). The efforts to keep men and women separate, though, was often futile as men would use the ladies’ window to retrieve letters from their wives, girlfriends, sisters, etc. Toward this latter point, “the postal system may, in theory, have allowed women the privilege of their own private box, but for many, the mail box was inside the coat pockets of men” (76).

As Henkin describes, “the post office was a force for public exposure, transforming the ostensibly intimate epistolary contact into a broadly visible event” (81). He points to how the post office “was a special place to see and be seen—sites of self—presentation and confrontation” (80). Emerging from post offices can be broad displays of literacy, emotions, fortune/misfortune, sorrow and joy.

Henkin concludes by writing that the postal network presented two images of the human condition: “on the one hand, mail communication brought together friends, family, and acquaintances who were physical separated. On the other hand, the stem also brought people (often strangers) into physical proximity” (90).


Four: Embracing Opportunities: The Construction of the Personal Letter

Henkin looks toward the construction of a postal culture: “A great deal of cultural work went into the production of the codes and ideals of intimacy that shaped epistolary communication. What emerged most generally during this period was a set of practices, discourses, and beliefs—a postal culture—that redefined the very status of mail” (93). The personal letter, in particular, become an emergent genre of communication that had yet to have mass production or circulation until he newly accessible and increasingly indispensible communication network took place in the 1840’s and 50’s. Increasingly, unlike with the use of transient newspapers as mentioned in the earlier chapter, the personal letter and the newspaper were noted as doing different work. From one particular letter-writer, he warns, “do not fall into the notion, that you cannot write, unless you have some news to tell. Items of news may be gathered from the newspapers; but a friendly correspondence has, or should have, another purpose—to express sympathy and good feeling, and to keep up an acquaintance with and a pleasant remembrance of, each other” (94). The distinction emphasized the mundane in order to maintain “acquaintance” over long distances.

However, the skills and labor involved in personal letter writing became “the qualifications for entering middle-class professional life” as clerks of businessmen (95). Such blurry lines between personal and work had some tensions, particularly on the Sabbath: “as letter-writing became more common, correspondents who observed the Sabbath faced a dilemma. Was the medium they were using inherently worklike?” (96). However, during the Civil war, letters became a bridge “to a distant world ‘of civilization, of Sabbath and home influence, of all the sweet memories and amenities that make life endurable’” (97). As such, letters became a means, themselves, of Sabbath observance. Sunday, then, became a ritual day of writing, reading, and rereading letters—thus affirming letter writing as a sacred activity. But again, the slipperiness between business letters and personal, sacred letters were a point of anxiety, thus prompting several etiquette manuals to aid in the distinction.

Personal letters, also, were seen as very private in 19th century antebellum: “letters were private because their contents were intimate” (99). “Letters were secret (in several senses), they bore metonymic traces of the (typically female) bodies that composed them, and they dealt in the currency of human intimacy” (100). On the other hand, letters were often addressed to several people and were typically shared. However, in either case, the sacred-ness of letters, the often privacy of letters, and the way they recorded micro-histories often became motivation behind either destroying the letters immediately upon reading (for fear they may be read out of context latter) or saved to be used as material memorials.

However, despite the personal letter’s prevalence during this time period, it was still the case that letters “were inferior to the bodily contact [evoked” by positive conversation]” (110)j. He continues, “while the letter opens as an oral exchange embedded in an intimate physical encounter, the medium of writing winds up imposing time limits on what can be said, disrpupting the analogy [of oral exchange]” (110).


Five: Precious as Gold: Mobility and Family in the Gold Rush and Civil War

Henkin opens with a description of two brothers who kept in constant correspondence as one of the brothers trekked from Chicago westward. The other brother writes, “From the time my brother left Independence… I had a map lying before me on my table, and whenever I received a letter from him, I would trace out his course on the map, and his letters being in full detail, I was enabled to travel along with him” (119). However, “only when the letter stopped did Phillip begin to lose his confident grip on Charles’ progress” (119). The disruption in regular connectivity signaled anxiety—Charles had, in fact, died along his journey and Phillip did not year until a year after his final letter (through the newspaper).

Henkin writes, “As letter-writing became more common, and the mail service more regular and extensive, the post allowed people to track mobile friends and relatives and imagine their activities within a shared temporal framework” (119-20). Letters worked in conjuncture with maps, railroad routes, etc to track movement of goods, people, information across the country. “Americans, both in their letters and in a growing public discourse of the post, acknowledged the value of mail as a conduit for familial affections and long-distance social interaction” (120). Letters became a symbol of personal continuity and “a badge of membership in some distant network of personal relations” (120).

However, while the connectivity of letters allowed for motivation to move and migrate across the country, Henkin found—in personal diaries of men and women—that the dispersed population were often disappointed in the way letters were often delayed or never delivered. Writing became the only means of communicating among family and, often, it wasn’t always enough. Nonetheless, there was still belief that letters were capable of transmitting the emotional content of domestic relations over distance. Henkin concludes, “the idealized family letter represented the portability of all the affection, influence, and shared purpose that secured such stability” (147).




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