An excerpt from

The Postal Age

The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America

David M. Henkin

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 round-trip 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.

Under these circumstances, most Americans tended to use the mail, if at all, for shorter distances or special occasions when the high price of sending a letter would mark the significance of the gesture. An 1856 article in the Ladies’ Repository claimed that “no tax can be prohibitory” on familiar letters between kin and speculated that “a poor solitary woman whose husband is on the other side of the globe” would go begging door-to-door rather than forgo correspondence. Such a rosy picture of the appeal of letters was possible in 1856; a decade or two earlier, the tax on letter writing was, for most Americans, prohibitory indeed. Elizabeth Keckley’s autobiographical account of her rise from slave to presidential seamstress notes that when she joined her master Hugh Garland in St. Louis in 1847 (after the first reduction in postage, but before the second and prior to the requirement of prepayment), he was “so poor that he was unable to pay the dues on a letter advertised as in the post office for him.” In Keckley’s retrospective view, this was indeed a mark of serious penury. From a more distant vantage point, the phenomenon of a slaveholder (and a lawyer who, incidentally, would successfully represent the interests of Dred Scott’s putative owners in denying Scott’s 1852 petition for freedom) who could not afford to collect his mail appears as an episode from a very distant era in the history of communication.

Letters were priced beyond the reach of most Americans, not because technological developments had yet to lower the costs of transmitting the mail, but because letters were expected to finance the main business of the post. 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. Individual letter-writers, typically merchants, were depended upon to absorb the costs of this political commitment by subsidizing an extremely low rate on newspapers. To later users of the post, the preponderance of newspapers in the mail might appear as a vestige of an antiquated and unjust privilege, but in the early republic the link between the press and the post made perfect sense. To be sure, not everyone shared the view that the only proper function of a post was to circulate printed newspapers and subsidize political communication. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, many celebrants of the federal postal system, especially from the Northeast, emphasized other and larger applications and implications of widespread use of the mail. As more letters passed in the mails, postal reformers took aim at what they saw as a short-sighted rate policy. Correspondence itself was in the nation’s political and economic interest, advocates of cheap letter postage insisted, and a combination of lowered rates and improved service could induce a high enough volume of mail to cover the costs (largely fixed) of the expanded system. This shift in thinking was more than simply a new approach to financing the post or a refusal to prioritize political speech over economic intercourse (though it certainly was both of those things). Proponents of cheap letter rates and mass participation were articulating a new relationship between the post and the state. Ancient and medieval posts had been mouthpieces of the state, and well into the modern era governments had used their monopoly over postal transmission to facilitate and legitimate particular types of political speech. Postal reformers envisioned a mail system in which the state simply encouraged and regulated high volumes of unspecified exchange between customers.

The American ratification of this new model began in 1845, when Congress revamped the postage scale. Letters would now be charged on the basis of weight at a radically reduced rate of five cents per half ounce for a distance up to three hundred miles and ten cents per half ounce for greater distances. Six years later, the Postal Act of 1851 set the basic rate at only five cents for any half-ounce letter traveling up to three thousand miles within the United States, effectively eliminating distance as a determinant of cost. The 1851 law also introduced a 40 percent discount for prepaid postage, allowing half-ounce letters to travel virtually throughout the country for three cents. Four years later, the Post Office began requiring prepayment, and by 1856 such payment had to take the form of postage stamps (which had been introduced in 1847) or stamped envelopes. While lowering and standardizing the costs of sending letters, Congress enacted a series of newspaper rates that were differentiated according to distance (and generally raised). Though some of the newspaper provisions were soon rescinded, the major reorientation of the post office had been accomplished. Thereafter, the primary category of mail would consist of letters—a homogeneous class of prepaid correspondence—circulating without restriction within a postal network. Writing a letter had been transformed into a fundamentally affordable activity.

A complete history of the postal reductions of 1845 and 1851 has yet to be written, and it is not the intention here to provide one. It is worth thinking briefly, however, about the larger historical context in which these reforms took place and the role that cheap postage played in the expanded use of the postal system. Histories of the nineteenth century take it almost for granted that any turning point in the development of long-distance communication in the United States revolves around new technologies—especially in transportation. The key players in most such accounts—steamboats, canals, railroads—certainly did facilitate the expansion of the post and the proliferation of mail, as did the introduction of the telegraph in 1844, just one year before the first major reform. All of these advances and innovations helped reduce the time lags in mail transmission (though improved roads were at least as important along many routes). Canals and railroad lines also helped bring more people and more places into regular contact with (and lasting dependence upon) the market economy—and consequently fostered greater need for postal access. Technological developments also played an important role in the increasing geographical mobility of Americans and thus in the greater likelihood that Americans would live at a distance from friends and family. Railroads and (even more immediately) telegraphs also contributed to a striking shift in experiences of simultaneity among distant places and people. By 1849, for example, telegraphed results of the boxing match between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan on a desolate island off the coast of Maryland 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. Other inventions and innovations figured in this history as well, including the steam-powered printing press, new techniques in paper production, and the greater availability of corrective lenses. It would be a mistake, though, to simplify the causal role of these innovations in the mid-century postal revolution. Technology does not explain the transformation, though it is hard to imagine a mass postal network without these technological developments.

An equally necessary precondition for widespread participation in the post, of course, was mass literacy in the United States. Without the presumption that ordinary Americans could write letters, reformers would have been hard-pressed to make a convincing economic case for reducing postage. It is also significant that the drive for cheap postage coincided roughly with other efforts at promoting literate habits among the American masses, such as the common school movement, and that many of the loudest voices for cheap postage echoed from the same northeastern, middle-class, evangelical, Whig circles from which educational reforms drew their strongest support. Economic, political, social, and religious investments in the power of writing and print underwrote many reformist interventions during the antebellum era, and cheap postage can persuasively be numbered among them.

The precise relationship between reductions in the letter rate and high rates of literacy in mid-century America is hard to identify, however. The best evidence suggests that the United States was a broadly literate society well before 1845, and a general political commitment to promoting reading had in all likelihood been part of the charge of the post office from the 1790s onward. The ability to read and write does not (and did not) translate in any straightforward way into epistolary practices or postal habits. What is clear, though, is that mass participation in the postal system reinforced the skills and desires that reformers were counting upon in the first place. As with the proliferation of so many artifacts of the expanding antebellum print culture (including newspapers, novels, political pamphlets, urban signage, and fashion magazines), the increasing availability and affordability of the post encouraged the acquisition, cultivation, and maintenance of literacy. Former slave and Baptist minister Elijah P. Marrs recalled the central role of the mail in his attempts to teach himself how to read as a boy in Kentucky. “[T]he white people would send me daily to the post-office,” he explained, where he “would read the address of the letters.” More commonly, letter-writers spoke of correspondence as an occasion for developing or showcasing their skills in composition and penmanship. Parents and older siblings often cited correspondence as both the reward and the litmus test for learning how to write, and letters were routinely evaluated by their addressees for evidence of progress in this regard. In a nonposted letter entered into a family book in the decade before postal reform, a young Quaker girl named Jane Elfreth offered her younger brother a standard bit of sisterly encouragement: “Thee cant read my letter now but perhaps thee will be able to some years hence if thee learns to write.” Jane’s advice was in keeping with the explicit function of the letter book, which her father had purchased, according to another family member, so “that we may improve in our writing,” a phrase that recurs often in nineteenth-century correspondence. Thomas Watkins, a Mississippi plantation owner, wrote in 1848 to his thirteen-year-old daughter (away at school in Tennessee) that “[y]ou have improved in letter writing & I am glad of it. Still there may be corrections made in your letters.” The girl’s mother offered some faint praise along the same lines two months later: “You wrote to know if I did not think you have improved in writing. I think you have improved a little.” In one of her many letters to her Gold Rush husband, Mary Wingate coaxed a brief, penciled contribution from her young daughter Lucy: “I want you to come home as soon as you can for we are very lonely without you. I hope I shall learn to write soon so that mother wont have to hold my hand next time I want to write to you. From your own Lucy.” Ten months later, Mary reported that “Lucy says she means to learn to write next summer so that she can write you a letter. She is so nervous I am afraid it will be some time before she can do [it].” Such pedagogical attention to interpersonal correspondence formed a crucial part of the cultural construction of letter-writing as a particular kind of performance (as it had in the early national era as well). 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 the period when Congress redefined the post as an affordable medium of mass communication.

The perception, ideology, and reality of mass literacy enabled most Americans to imagine the post as a broadly inclusive network. For enslaved African Americans, a majority of whom did not read or write, the post was far less accessible, but it is not clear that illiteracy among them was either a necessary or a sufficient obstacle to postal participation. Slaveholders had various means other than restricting literacy for regulating slaves’ use of the mail. And even illiterate slaves managed to send and receive letters, often relying upon amanuenses and readers, both white and black. (Illiterate whites dictated letters as well, especially immigrants seeking to correspond with distant families.) Among slaves, plantation discipline was often more important than literacy in constraining access to the post. Lucy Skipwith, an enslaved woman in Hopewell, Alabama, encountered white resistance to her letter-writing, even when she was corresponding with her absentee master John Cocke. “I hope to write more sattisfactory than I have done heretofore,” she apologized in an 1863 letter. “[T]he white people who have stayed on the plantation are always opposed to my writeing to you & always want to see my letters.” Similarly, an 1854 letter from an illiterate slave to his brother began with the explanation that “I have obtained the consent of my master to get a friend to write these lines to you.” Solomon Northrup’s 1853 slave narrative described his own frustrated efforts at “getting a letter secretly into the post-office” and testified directly about the larger obstacle of postmasters who would refuse to mail letters composed by slaves without written authorization from their owners. Literacy, in such cases, was not the crucial variable.

For illiterate postal users, there were risks, of course, associated with reliance upon literate intermediaries, as a fugitive slave from Louisiana discovered in 1841 when he posted a letter to an illiterate friend back home upon crossing the Ohio River into Cincinnati. Because he could not read, the addressee showed the letter to a white man who proceeded to share its contents with the fugitive’s master. Ultimately the letter was published in the local newspaper and reprinted in the New Orleans Picayune under the headline Though even the letters of fully literate correspondents were often shared among unintended readers (and sometimes, as a later chapter notes, had an unfortunate afterlife on the pages of the daily newspaper), African Americans, both free and enslaved, were especially vulnerable to postal interference, which may have provided a further incentive to master the epistolary arts. A black sergeant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War noted proudly in his diary that several in the regiment “who, although never having been slaves, [had been] unable to write their names,” were now “applying themselves assiduously with spelling book, pen, ink, and paper.” Alluding vaguely to the perils of dictation and mediation, the author explained that “a year’s experience in the army has shown most of them the disadvantage of being dependent upon others to do their writing and reading of letters.”

Illiteracy, in other words, compromised but did not preclude participation in America’s postal network. A fascinating correspondence between absentee slaveholder William S. Pettigrew and the enslaved foremen on his two North Carolina plantations illustrates this crucial point nicely. During an extended convalescence at Healing Springs in Virginia, Pettigrew sought to manage his business affairs by corresponding with Moses and Henry, the two illiterate overseers, relying upon a white intermediary. “Thinking you would be glad to hear from me,” Pettigrew wrote to Moses in 1856, “I have concluded to write you a few lines and will enclose them to Mr. White who will read them to you.” Though Malica J. White’s own skills were quite rough, he dutifully transcribed the replies of three different slaves, and a detailed correspondence ensued, dealing with countless details of crop production, workplace discipline, and plantation life. Pettigrew always addressed Moses and Henry directly, and they responded in kind. Upon receiving their replies, Pettigrew offered paternalistic congratulation to Moses for his “succe[ss] as a letter-writer,” proudly showed the letter to a friend, and instructed Moses to “writ[e] more frequently,” de-emphasizing White’s mediation. The relationship between dictation and transcription, as Pettigrew imagined it in a letter addressed to Moses and read to him by White, could be somewhat complex:

I wish you to send me a letter every other week & Henry every other week—which will enable me to hear from home every week. Perhaps Mr. White, who will be good enough to write for you, would prefer writing Saturdays; it will be immaterial to me on what day the letter is written so that one is sent every week. When it is Henry’s time, he can ride out to Belgrade & Mr. White will write as he may request him. He will inform me of all that is worth reporting to me at Belgrade as well as Magnolia; and when you write, you will, in like manner, send me a report of what Henry says, as to his affairs at Magnolia as well as your own report.

But if the multiple reports and competing claims of White, Moses, and Henry to the status of letter-writer require some disentangling in Pettigrew’s instructions, the larger correspondence makes clear that it was the illiterate foremen (who had authority to make business decisions) and not their more literate white secretary who were engaged in an epistolary exchange with the slaveholder. Pettigrew’s faith in the capacity of the mail to extend his monitory presence over distant plantations is itself a noteworthy artifact of the antebellum postal culture. But what is equally remarkable is that his use of the post did not depend on the literacy of his correspondents.

While the histories of transportation, print technology, and literacy figure prominently in the spread of the post, they cannot adequately explain the shift toward mass participation that was signaled and encouraged by the postal legislation of 1845 and 1851. Among the various social forces that contributed to the move toward cheap postage, the most powerful were demographic. Antebellum Americans were far more likely to patronize the post than their early national ancestors and counterparts because they were even more mobile and had more economic and social ties to people who lived at a distance.

The middle third of the nineteenth century was, quite famously, a time of extraordinary mobility in United States. Much of that mobility consisted of individual shifts in residence that show up in rough aggregate form on census reports. American cities, both old and new, were conspicuous showcases of this demographic transience during the antebellum era, but residential mobility was not restricted to urban areas. The frontier town of Sugar Creek, Illinois, for example, saw two-thirds of its families turn over in the space of ten years, and even in the much older community of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, more than one-third of the families recorded in one decennial census had moved by the next. Urbanization and westward migration were especially and poignantly apparent from the vantage point of the rural New England counties from which so many mobile Americans hailed. By mid-century more than half of the living persons who had been born in Vermont resided elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Ohio, a major destination for transplanted Yankees, more than half of the population in 1850 had been born beyond state borders.

There were, of course, particular patterns to the individual moves: planters and slaves left Virginia and North Carolina for Arkansas and Texas, for example, while young men and women from New England farms migrated to New York, and farmers from Indiana and Illinois (themselves one generation removed from coastal states) relocated to Missouri, Iowa, and across the overland trail to California and Oregon. Some movements even took the form of collective migrations, such as those of Irish families crossing the Atlantic during the potato famine or Cherokees marching along the Trail of Tears at gunpoint. Other mass movements involved temporary dislocations, such as those created by war in 1846 and 1861 and by the discovery of gold at mid-century. All of this meant that America’s modern postal culture emerged during a time when the relationship between persons and places in the United States was remarkably fluid.

Images of a perpetually mobile population, which dominated visitors’ accounts of U.S. society before the Civil War, loomed large in the arguments of postal reformers for making mail service more broadly accessible. Advocates of cheap postage cited mobility as a basis for their sanguine predictions of a nation of letter-writers and insisted that America’s exceptional demographics made the case for rate reductions and uniformity especially urgent. Elsewhere, members of the same family “live and die at their native homestead, or within a few miles of the spot where they were born,” argued the New Englander in 1843. “The American, on the other hand, is born for migration,” and families routinely scatter “hundreds of miles apart.” As the members of New England households moved to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the evangelical magazine proceeded to imagine, countless impulses for long-distance communication would inevitably arise in “hearts that warm toward their kindred here.”

There is the teacher whose trials would be lightened, and his heart cheered, if he could freely communicate by letter with those who were once his instructors or his companions in study. There is the minister of the Gospel, the home missionary, to whose self-denying work free communication with friends, brethren and helpers far away, is of the greatest moment. There is the young man, exposed to strong temptations, whom a free and frequent correspondence with his mother, or his sisters, or with another friend still dearer to his hopes, might keep from falling. There is the anxious wife or mother, who sees the health of some dear one in the family beginning to fail, and who would like to get one word from the old family physician. There are the planters of new towns and villages, laying the foundations civil, ecclesiastical and literary, who would love sometimes to get a short answer to one short question from the judge, the ’squire, the minister, the schoolmaster, or the deacon, whom they knew in old Connecticut or in the old Bay State. But how, in that new country, can they raise the half dollar to pay the post-office tax upon a single question?

While following the lead of Great Britain, the United States entered the new postal era with a distinctive set of expectations about how the mail might function as a mass medium. In addition to facilitating commerce, fostering inter-regional ties, and promoting contact between a republican government and its dispersed citizenry, the post would serve the needs of what the great postal reformer Pliny Miles called “our large floating population.” 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 familial ties. For Americans who wished to communicate with friends and family in homelands outside the nation’s postal zone, of course, reductions in postage did not always make correspondence affordable, though in 1845 the Post Office Department also began subsidizing foreign mail transport and pursuing international postal treaties. But reformers were primarily concerned with internal migrants. An advocate of postal reform observed in 1820 that in the recent past a man would hesitate to form new settlements out of fear that “the grave might for months have entombed his most endeared friends, before he could become acquainted even with the decay of their health.” Letter-writing, he announced, was eroding these fears. In a letter back to her family in Maryland shortly after her arrival in Ohio, Anna Briggs Bentley instructed her correspondents to provide steady streams of mundane detail in the mail “so that as I am journeying on through time in my distant habitation I may keep up a kind of acquaintance and not feel like a stranger in my own dear native land, if ever I should visit it again.”

Not all Americans were mobile, and not all who did move used the post to forge or maintain connections to the people and places they left behind. It would be a mistake to exaggerate or oversimplify the relationship between migration and correspondence. Nations with lower rates of mobility also shifted to cheap letter rates and also promoted popular participation in the post during the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, a simple point is worth stressing. Increased mobility enhanced the appeal, utility, and economic viability of a medium that would be redefined in the United States around the desire of ordinary people to communicate with those who lived elsewhere. In 1800, far fewer Americans would have wanted to maintain correspondence, even if they had access to the franking privileges of a postmaster or a Congressman. By mid-century a demographic foundation for popular participation in the postal system had been laid.

The massive mobilization of Americans—male and female, black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native—was a development rather than a sudden occurrence, though a number of dramatic events helped facilitate and broadcast this ongoing phenomenon as something distinct and momentous. Migrations, mobilizations, and dislocations belong to the history of the postal revolution; they were effects as well as causes of the transformation of the mail into a mass ritual. As more and more people relocated from the communities in which they had been born, the desire to correspond with absent friends, family members, and business associates intensified. The post, in turn, reinforced migratory patterns and itinerant impulses.

However implicated in large historical developments, the Congressional Acts of 1845 and 1851 were, at the same time, political and administrative reforms born amid a set of specific constraints and concerns. Congress elected to tap the perceived potential popularity of correspondence in the face of private competition, widespread criticism, and foreign example. Rival private carriers such as Adams Express, Harnden Express, and Wells Fargo flourished during the early and mid-1840s in response to increased business demands, often providing delivery service and expedited access as well as cheaper letter rates. The larger express firms made good use of the new railroad lines connecting major urban centers and enjoyed a significant price advantage over the Post Office, since they did not have to ask letter-writers to subsidize newspaper transmission. Other, smaller operations simply undercut the U.S. mail by collecting letters headed for the same destination and sending them through the post at a package rate. Private posts encouraged letter-writing (primarily among businessmen), popularized important new business models (including uniform postage and home delivery), put enormous economic pressure on the Post Office Department, and even called into open question the government’s monopoly on the mail. An 1844 broadside for Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company asserted the intention of his intercity post to use its success “to agitate the question, and test the constitutional right of free competition in the business of carrying letters.” Instead of conceding its monopoly, the government responded by reforming its operations.

In seeking to meet the challenge posed by the express firms, Congress turned to the model that had been instituted in Great Britain five years earlier under the direction of postal reformer Rowland Hill, who had published in 1837 a major treatise on post office reform after several ventures into other reform causes. Hill advocated a cheap, uniform rate of postage that would encourage a significant increase in the use of the mails. He also called for prepayment through the use of stamped letter sheets or small adhesive stamps. If postage were reduced to one penny prepaid, Hill argued, the post would enjoy a net gain in revenue. After substantial agitation and initial hesitation, Parliament enacted these proposals in 1839, providing a major boost to postal reformers across the Atlantic. Other governments followed (the cantons of Zurich, Geneva, and Basel in the early 1840s; Brazil around the same time; the United States in 1845; and Belgium and France by the end of the decade, followed by Spain, Denmark, Holland, and Luxemburg), collectively creating the modern postal system.

How immediately decisive the legislative reforms of 1845 and 1851 were in facilitating widespread postal participation in the United States is a difficult question. As was true in Great Britain, cheaper postage did not entirely and instantaneously fulfill reformers’ bold predictions. Yet it is clear that uniformity, prepayment, and affordability did spark a considerable increase in the volume of mail in postal circulation. In the first decade following the 1845 act, the number of letters mailed in the United States more than tripled, reaching 132 million in 1855. This figure did not necessarily represent the sudden birth of a nation of avid correspondents. Letter-writing remained a disproportionately urban activity in an overwhelmingly rural society (in 1856 New Yorkers sent thirty letters per capita, more than six times the national average), and commercial mail undoubtedly accounted for a majority of the total volume. Moreover, some of the increase may have come from the shift of patronage from private express companies to the government post. Nonetheless, the slashing of rates to less than one-fourth (in many cases) of their former level had a major material and symbolic effect on the practice of writing letters.

Who exactly used the post in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s is impossible to determine, but a few crucial divisions within the new postal nation are clear enough. Northerners sent more mail than Southerners—more than twice as much per capita in both urban and rural areas—in large part a reflection of higher rates of literacy, long-distance commercial activity, and urbanization. City residents posted far more letters than those who lived on farms or in small towns. In 1852, for example, 28 percent of all letters mailed in the United States were posted in one of six cities (the five largest and San Francisco). Two years later the number of letters sent per capita in the six largest U.S. cities was more than six times the total for the rest of the country. Two years after that, Manhattan alone accounted for 10 percent of the nation’s posted correspondence, more than any entire state on the Gulf of Mexico. Such high rates of urban participation suggest an undeniable link between the mail and the market economy, but it would be a mistake to attribute the entire imbalance to business mail. Whether or not they were merchants, city people were far more prone to post letters than their rural counterparts. At mid-century, most adult residents of large American cities had been born elsewhere and were likely to have friends and family living at a distance. The disproportionately urban character of the nineteenth-century postal network went beyond the numbers of letters sent. Residents in more densely settled areas enjoyed a different kind of access to the mail than those whose location forced them to wait as much as a week between deliveries or collections. In Caroline Kirkland’s semifictional account of frontier life in Michigan in the late 1830s, weekly mail service appears both as a major adjustment and as an unexpected delight. “I have learned to pity most sincerely those who get their letters and papers at all sorts of unexpected and irregular times,” she announced, deprecating the bustling, haphazard character of the seaboard she had left behind. As the volume and variety of mail increased, however, what Kirkland found precious others came to regard as a frustrating inconvenience. As late as 1876, an Alabama Congressman complained that many of his constituents received mail only once a week and that he himself had “but three mails a week from the railroad to the town in which I live.” Americans living in the rural hinterland used the post in increasing numbers during the middle third of the century, but they timed their compositions and inquiries to the slower rhythms of their mail service and thus remained in some respects at the margins of an emerging postal culture dominated by city people.

Other disparities are a bit harder to track, but were probably even more significant. The relationship between male and female participation in the post was a subject of much interest in the antebellum period, as it had been earlier and as it remains today. In the emerging postal culture, women’s use of the mail figured prominently in an ongoing construction of letter-writing as an intimate activity. Certain observers celebrated women’s superior capacity for correspondence, while critics mocked the loquacious, disorganized, and transgressive excesses of women’s epistolary practices. Both of these tropes and all of this attention tended to identify women with personal letters (an identification that has survived in mystified form in numerous current discourses, both popular and scholarly) and to obscure the point that the typical user of the post was male. Men dominate images and accounts of mid-century post office life, and lists of addressees for uncollected mail (the famous “dead letter lists” that appeared regularly in nineteenth-century newspapers) usually included a preponderance of male names. The postage reforms narrowed the gap a bit, but did not eliminate it. Both men and women used the post after 1845, though not at the same rates.

Race was also a significant divide in the American postal network, largely because the majority of African Americans living in the United States were illiterate, poor, and subject to severe legal (and other) restrictions. Still, both slaves and free blacks used the post to a striking degree. Slaves wrote, dictated, and posted letters to masters, former masters, friends, family, abolitionist allies, and even to famous strangers. The access of enslaved men and women in the South to the post office varied widely. In some cases, delivering or collecting mail was a menial duty assigned specifically to slaves. In other situations and under different circumstances, slaves could encounter serious obstacles to their participation in the postal network. When interviewed by an antislavery minister shortly before the Civil War, former slave Louisa Picquet spoke of learning a special procedure for corresponding with her enslaved mother. “There is a kink about mailing a letter, so as to have it reach a slave, that we never dreamed of,” the minister noted, “but Mrs. P. does not wish it published.”

However mediated, regulated, and compromised, the mail could prove a valuable resource to slaves in difficult situations, as the dramatic example of Anthony Burns’s letter illustrates (see the introduction). In her famous autobiography, Harriet Jacobs narrates a comparably impressive but strikingly different use of the post. Hiding out from her master, Dr. Flint, in a nearby house, Jacobs deceived him into believing that she had escaped to New York by having a letter delivered up North and then mailed back to Flint bearing a New York postmark. Unable to appear in public in her home town, Jacobs nonetheless managed to orchestrate and time the movements of a letter along a round-trip journey between North Carolina and New York and throw her pursuers off the trail by means of an impersonal and authoritative postmark. Whereas Burns’s correspondence fulfilled the classic promise of a postal system to transport distant speakers and incarnate absent bodies, Jacobs’s ruse underscored other, more modern, features of the post that could prove useful to fugitives from the law.

For other slaves, the role of the post in the quest for freedom was more direct. Traveling with his master in New York in the mid-1840s, John S. Jacob announced his flight from slavery in a letter, which he dictated to a literate friend and dropped in the post office. Jacob stayed on the job through the evening, knowing that the following day he would be on his way to Massachusetts while his master would receive the following letter: “Sir—I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacob.” Certainly the best-known and most remarkable use of the post by a person seeking to escape legal bondage took place in 1849, when Henry “Box” Brown successfully mailed himself by shipping crate from Richmond to Philadelphia. Brown’s crate, which a white accomplice addressed and marked “this side up,” was conveyed by one of the private express companies and was mistaken by observers for a box of mail. Well-publicized uses of the post by fugitive slaves reinforced the symbolic link between literacy and freedom among African Americans, but they offered a more specific lesson as well. The postal network, though dominated by prosperous merchants, could also accommodate the enslaved, the transient, the dislocated, and the dispossessed. The epistolary archives of the mid-nineteenth century are filled with contributions from Norwegian immigrants, rural Midwestern teenagers, and black artisans, as well as Philadelphia dry goods dealers and New England poets.


Users of the mail network acknowledged the revolutionary changes of the 1840s and 1850s through a complex range of responses and adjustments. Perhaps out of tact, or perhaps because it did not require excessive emphasis, most American correspondents passed over the postal reforms largely in silence. Occasionally, however, a letter might refer playfully to the new possibilities presented by cheaper postage. Writing to her cousin Joseph in Connecticut just after the new law was passed, Catherine Huntington inquired how “the P.O. reformation suit[s] you.” Catherine, who had intended “to have a heap of letters ready to send, as soon as July came in,” extended her “heartfelt thanks to the first mover of this reform,” and teased Joseph about his own epistolary habits. “Maybe the letters will come pouring in upon you in such multitudes that you’ll wish for the old rates of postage.” Six years later, on the eve of the second reduction, Mary Wingate of Meriden, Connecticut, informed her husband in San Francisco that “when the new postage law takes effect I shall be selfish enough to want to hear from you by every Steamer.” Lower rates also made it easier for letter-writers to be magnanimous in bearing the costs of transmission. A year after the first reduction, medical student Charles Hentz mailed a letter to a young woman who had sent him a newspaper, “obeying I suppose,” he noted in his diary, “the rules of etiquette by paying the postage.” Around mid-century, Godey’s Lady’s Book encouraged its readers to observe this practice as a rule. “At the present rates this may seem a small item. At so much cheaper price, then, do you purchase the reputation of a gentleman.” Especially during the early 1850s, when prepayment of postage was encouraged but not mandated, a new set of calculations of value and interest entered into the postal protocols of American letter writers.

Explicit discussions and assessments of the relative costs and benefits of personal mail were most likely to appear in exchanges between correspondents negotiating unfamiliar postage situations, as in the case of international mail or of letters posted to and from California during the Gold Rush. A gold-seeker in Sierra County informed his sister in 1856 that since the arrival of an official post office at his location, postage to the rest of the United States was now ten cents, instead of one to two dollars, “so you need not think that you will brake us by writing if you should write all the time.” According to another dislocated New Englander writing from San Francisco in 1849, his sister’s “rather dry” letter was “hardly worth 40¢.” The editor of a California newspaper, who liked to compare the value of a letter to its postage due, reassured one of his correspondents that he “need not be alarmed about heaping postage on me. That is nothing. Why, dear fellow, I would do it a thousand times.” In the case of international mail, which was charged different rates depending on specific treaties and conventions between the United States and the country of destination, correspondents often discussed costs, though here the significance of the 1845 and 1851 reforms was less uniform. As a Norwegian immigrant explained to his parents in 1863, a decade before a postal convention would establish cheap letter rates to Norway based on prepayment and weight, “When I work one day I am able to pay for 2 or 3 letters, so now you will realize that we receive any letter we may have with pleasure. But do not send white paper but write the page full, for it costs as much in postage whether there are many or few lines on the page.” Another Norwegian immigrant, writing home around the same time, expressed concern that if she wrote without constraint, her “letters would cost too much by the time they reach you.” “Incidentally,” she added, “it would be interesting to know what you actually do have to pay for postage.” Martin Weitz, a German immigrant living in Astoria, New York, encouraged his father to write back without prepaying the postage. “Letters cost 22 cents here,” he noted in 1854, “that’s 36 kreuzers in German money.” Twenty years later another German immigrant pressed his family for correspondence. “You’ll write to me soon, won’t you? A letter costs five cents = 7 ½ kreuzer.”

On other occasions, discussions of postage focused on ways to be more cost-efficient in using the mail. Confederate Congressman Warren Akin gave detailed postal instructions to his absent wife in an 1864 letter, asking her to “mail letters to me tuesday evening, wednesday evening and friday evening, and make some of the children write to me every time you do, so each one will write every week, and put their letters in the same envelope with yours and postage will be saved.” After the 1845 law switched the cost basis from sheets to weight, the practice of enclosing multiple letters in the same envelope appears to have become widespread, especially for correspondents writing to several friends and family in the same home community. Letter-writers adjusted to the new postal laws in other ways as well, reducing the size of their stationery and becoming slightly less obsessed with cramming as many words as possible onto a single sheet.

To be sure, old habits and expectations were not instantly eliminated by the new postal economics. The Cincinnati Atlas complained in 1851 that “even now-a-days when the postage is only three cents, pre-paid, correspondents often consign their letters to a private hand instead of the Government conveyance.” Such misplaced and obsolete concessions to thrift were “bad economy and worse politeness,” the Atlas charged, since in all likelihood the personal messenger would “rather pay the postage himself than be troubled with attending to its delivery.” In an age when the government carried mail faster, more safely, and “almost for nothing,” the metropolitan press pointed out, there was no longer any reason to send letters outside the post. After the second postage reduction, such advice was both new and necessary.

Other features of the reform required equally dramatic shifts in popular practice, especially outside major cities. The Illustrated Magazine of Art announced in 1853 that “the stamp system is now becoming generally used in the United States,” and that close to 80 percent of the letters posted in New York bore stamps. But in other parts of the country, the magazine noted with surprise, “there seems to be a sort of reluctance to make use of … this easy, simple process.” In Philadelphia, at least, some initial reluctance to adopt this innovation may have reflected ignorance about the proper use of stamps. Two separate letters to the Public Ledger in September of 1851 referred to popular complaints about “postage Stamps not adhering.” (Both observers saw fit to point out that stamps adhere better when properly moistened.) During that same pivotal year, the same Philadelphia newspaper had to admonish readers who had gotten carried away with the spirit of postal reform, imagining that the new cheap and uniform rates applied as well to international letters. “Many letters are dropped into the Post-office in this city, intended for the continent of Europe,” ran an August, 1851 article, “upon which the U.S. three-cent stamps are affixed.”

It is hardly surprising that the transition to prepaid mail and adhesive stamps occasioned some reticence and confusion. What is more remarkable is how quickly the new approach to the mail took hold. The earliest stamps, issued by individual postmasters to encourage prepayment in the two years after the reduction of 1845, introduced novel practices as well as novel artifacts. One surviving Vermont letter bearing one of these “postmaster provisionals” (as they are designated in philatelic parlance) includes the note “I pay this just to shew the stamp. It is against my principles you know.” Old principles about the mail were rapidly eroding, however. In January, 1852, Emily Wharton Sinkler of South Carolina reported to her father in Philadelphia that “stamps appear to be universally used,” at least in her elite circles. “In all my numerous correspondence I have received but two letters unstamped since July” of the previous year. By the time of the Civil War, just over a decade after the introduction of federally issued postage stamps and only a few years after prepayment became mandatory, Union soldiers clamored for stamps as a basic necessity of military life. William A. Clark of Indiana requisitioned his parents continually, explaining that although he could get his captain to frank letters so that they would arrive home postage due, this was not a palatable option. Perhaps relatives could be imposed upon in this way, “but to others it would be funny.”

In a very short period of time, stamps had become indispensable instruments of correspondence and objects of broadly acknowledged utility in everyday life. Throughout the state-banking era (before the Treasury Department began issuing currency in 1863), stamps were the only pieces of paper authorized by the federal government to circulate at a set value throughout the country. During the war, when specie was rare and banknotes depreciated, stamps became useful as money, and stores in cities would give them as change. The first national paper money issue, in fact, was a fractional currency known as “postage currency.” Though their suitability for this purpose reflected special problems and possibilities brought about by economic crisis and a diverse, unstable, and deregulated money supply, postage stamps were an administrative innovation that quickly and palpably came to dramatize the popularity of the post in mid-century America.

Beyond the somewhat unique case of stamps, a large body of postal materials flooded the American home and workplace during the middle decades of the century. Prestamped envelopes, which provided a popular alternative for prepaying postage, first appeared in 1853, and were available in thirteen different denominations, ranging from one to forty cents. In the first year of their issue, five million three- and six-cent envelopes were distributed to post offices all over the country, and a decade later the annual purchases of the Wells Fargo Express company alone included over two million envelopes bearing three-cent postage. By the time of the Civil War, the Post Office Department was also offering newspaper wrappers with prepaid (one-cent) postage and prestamped letter sheets that could be folded and mailed—though the latter proved far less popular than the envelopes. Envelopes emblazoned with distinctive mottoes and images, a phenomenon described in a later chapter, proliferated during the war. But even before the war, private printers had begun to cater to the rising interest in new types of mass-produced stationery and postal paraphernalia. Beginning in 1840, Americans composed letters on paper promoting the campaigns of presidential candidates. In the 1850s, California printers did unprecedented business selling letter sheets, envelopes, and corner-cards (a part of an envelope devoted to advertising a product or a company) to those who had emigrated to San Francisco and the Sierras in search of gold.

While new users adjusted unevenly to the novel opportunities and unfamiliar products that emerged during the advent of cheap postage, subtler shifts in the experience of communications were also taking place. As the mail system grew into a popular, participatory network in the 1840s and 1850s, Americans registered their integration into the new postal culture in their everyday epistolary practices, as they confidently scheduled and anticipated correspondence with family members, social contacts, and commercial partners. In imagining such access, Americans were not simply observing technological, political, and economic changes in the U.S. postal service. They were also responding to and participating in a new way of life that we now take for granted. With the advent 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 nineteenth-century America, became the site and the engine of revolutionary changes in everyday experience. The significance of those changes, of course, would depend on how Americans used their newly inclusive post and on how they imagined those uses. At its conceptual core, though, the postal network of the mid-nineteenth century introduced a radical innovation in the mapping of the United States that was at once abstractly ubiquitous in its reach and tethered, albeit imperfectly, to the personal identities of its users. In contrast to the Cartesian grids through which American statesmen and planners in the early national period had defined geographical space as a set of repeatable and interchangeable rectilinear units, the world of the post was oddly nonspatial. By 1851 the nation as a whole constituted a single postal zone within which individual post offices and mail routes formed the only significant spatial coordinates. There was no uniform field of spatial reference; names of persons and localities were special entities produced by contingent historical circumstances. Unlike lots on a Western land map or blocks on a municipal plan, names and addresses (which consisted at mid-century simply of post office locations) were irreducible to constitutive components and were not easily assembled into larger units.

Instead of mapping American space in orderly, geometric terms, the new postal cartography conjured an ill-defined, vaporous outside world through which or within which individual people could be located and accessed. How this new picture informed ordinary Americans’ perceptions and experiences of being in the world is impossible to say with any precision. Some postal users may well have conceived of letters as messages tossed upon the seas, washing up miraculously at their intended destination. Correspondents of a literary bent certainly indulged such thoughts. “I know not whereabouts this letter will find thee,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his fiancée Sophia Peabody in 1840, “but I throw it upon the winds.” Thomas Carlyle evoked a related image in a transoceanic letter to Emerson, whose location was more or less known, but so far away that Carlyle wondered if it did not seem “a beneficent miracle that messages can arrive at all; that a little slip of paper will skim over all these weltering floods, and other inextricable confusions; and come at last, in the hand of the Twopenny Postman, safe to your lurking-place, like green leaf in the bill of Noah’s Dove?” The comparison to Noah was a tellingly imprecise way to imagine the successful transmission of letters between the two literati, since the biblical dove was no carrier pigeon; she returned with a leaf collected from the soggy world beyond the ark—not from an intentional, personal correspondent. Fanny Fern’s popular mid-century novel Ruth Hall also captures the modernity of that ancient mail call, mobilizing the story of the aftermath of the Flood to describe her protagonist’s state of mind as she posted an important letter—at once heart-wrenching and savvy, both business and personal—to an editor whom she had never met but who was holding out the prospect of financial rescue. “Ruth carried her letter to the post-office; dropping it into the letter-box with more hopeful feelings than Noah probably experienced when he sent forth the dove from the ark for the third time.” From the perspective of many nineteenth-century postal users, letters did not necessarily bear the inimitable traces of other known individuals; they arrived from and departed for a vaguely defined and thickly veiled outside world.

Several contemporary sources made sense of this mode of communication by analogy to the supernatural. In “Song of Myself” (1855), Walt Whitman evoked the image of regular postal service and voluminous correspondence to describe his own experience of the divine imprint on everyday life: “I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name / And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go / Others will punctually come for ever and ever.” More commonly, though, observers compared mail to prayer. In The Post-office; or, An Illustration of Prayer, a London publication put out in revised form in 1844 by the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, a mother explains to her curious young son Henry the workings of the postal system. Asking how is it possible for his mother to have such faith that the words she writes will reach their destination (“[H]ow do you know that they will take care of your letter? [A]nd how do you know just what time they will bring the letters?”), the innocent boy articulates an understandable wonder at the complex web of faith undergirding postal relationships. Having laid out in didactic detail for her son—and for the book’s readers—the principles, policies, and infrastructure of the modern post, the mother segues into a discourse about an analogous subject, “still more important than sending letters by the post. … ” Every day, she notes, there are “affairs of the greatest consequence to carry on, about which I must send far beyond this world,” and her faith in the audibility and efficacy of those postings is no more remarkable, she points out, than her confidence in the mail.

Now, Henry, when I put a letter in the post, I have four reasons for expecting that it will safely reach the person to whom it is directed: because I send it in the regular, appointed way; because every thing necessary is provided at the different places for sending letters in that way; because I know that every day hundreds and thousands of letters go safely in that manner; and because I have myself received many letters in the same way.

The very same reasons encourage me to hope and expect that I shall receive the blessing I need in answer to prayer.

Literary outpourings from the California Gold Rush, which endowed the conduct of postal correspondence with an aura of sanctity, were similarly linked letter writing to supernatural communication. In Reverend John Steele’s account of the Coloma post office in 1853, letter recipients are easily moved by the singing of hymns. “The effect was inspiring,” Steele recalled, “and made me feel that God was not only present but considering our individual interests.”

Despite its evident modernity and its association with mundane commercial transactions, observers could find something otherworldly about the postal system in the middle of the nineteenth century. Much as in a particular gothic tale published in 1860, where the ghost of a falsely convicted man communicates with the living through the mail, ordinary letters collected at the post office could spark fantasies about relationships that exceeded the ordinary bounds of space, time, and social possibility. The habituation of hundreds of thousands of mid-century Americans to the practices and expectations that such ordinary letters represented marked a momentous shift in those bounds.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 15-41 of The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America by David M. Henkin, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

David M. Henkin
The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America
©2006, 238 pages, 11 halftones
Cloth $38.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-32720-4
Paper $20.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-32721-1

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