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.
US Postal Service: Moroney Awards for Scholarship on Postal History
“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.”
“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>
“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>
Part One - Joining a Network
Two: Mailable Matters: From News to Mail
Three: Playing Post Office: Mail in Urban Space
Part Two - Postal Intimacy
Four: Embracing Opportunities: The Construction of the Personal Letter
Five: Precious as Gold: Mobility and Family in the Gold Rush and Civil War
Six: Mass Mailings: Valentines, Junk Mail, and Dead Letters