Review: The Postal Age

The hardcover version of David Henkin’s The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America catches your eye immediately, as a tall and slim volume that looks not unlike a slightly oversized envelope from another century. Likely by design, the physical layout of the book certainly primes the reader for it contents. As an examination of the rise of the American postal system in the middle decades of the 19th century (roughly the 1840’s-1860’s), The Postal Age offers up a fascinating blend of intellectual, cultural, and thematic history.

Henkin lays out his book in two sections. “Joining a Network” focuses on a more nuts-and-bolts examination of the spread of the postal system, how and what people mailed, and mail in a rising urban environment. The second section, “Postal Intimacy,” takes a more cultural approach towards common letter-writing styles and cliches, the post as a lens for growing geographic mobility, and the rise of mass mailings.

As someone who often struggles with writing introductions, I was absolutely blown away at how Henkin handled his own introduction. He used the story of Anthony Burns, a captured fugitive slave who somehow managed to write several letters from his jail cell in Virginia in 1854: “[Burns] managed to use the facilities of the federal postal system, including those housed in Virginia, to engage in confidential correspondence with his abolitionist lawyer in Boston.” Of course, Henkin used the Burns anecdote as a particularly powerful springboard to launch into the introduction to the meat of his book: the “cultural transformation” over the past decades that made the story possible. If I ever manage to write such a clever introduction, I’d consider myself satisfied.

I also particularly enjoyed his second chapter, “Mailable Matters,” which discussed what people mailed and how it evolved during his timeframe of study. In particular, the history of “transient newspapers,” (periodicals sent along through the post by someone other than the publisher) was fascinating. People used newspapers to anchor the recipient in a far-off place, provide information, and even work as a covert means of relaying personal messages. Due to its lower cost compared to letters, senders would mail newspapers with “‘Cabalistic concealment,” such as making certain marks or drawing pictures in the margins in order to convey basic information.

The postal bureaucracy of course cracked down on this practice, and by 1845 Congress had passed a postal price reduction that lowered the price of letters and reduced the appeal of transient newspapers. Interestingly, Henkin chooses to glide through much of the political legislation or campaigns behind critical postal reforms (such as the 1845 reduction). At times I wanted more background beyond the passing references to political history that Henkin often uses as distant backdrop for the center stage of cultural inquiry. Who spearheaded these campaigns? Was there a regional divide in lobbying efforts (coastal states vs. frontier regions)? Economic divides (merchant vs. agrarian classes)? I’m not sure if a lengthier discussion of these issues would have bogged down the writing pace, but at times it might have been helpful.

Henkin also discusses the growing transitory movements during the middle of the century, and in particular how letters and familial correspondence played a role in morally anchoring migrant men during the Gold Rush and the Civil War. Surrounded by the debauchery of mining or army camps, personal letters from wives, sisters, and mothers became mythologized as virtual placeholders of domesticity and moral influence. In fact, contemporaries often referred to letters from home in near-religious terms, whose effects on otherwise rough and tumble forty-niners “eerily resembles a conversion experience.” Even men who had spent the previous night gambling, drinking, and carousing with prostitutes could open a letter from his far-away home and be swept up in a fit of repentance and (presumed) absolution.

Finally, the last chapter I found to be the most fascinating: “Mass Mailings: Valentines, Junk Mail, and Dead Letters.” The information presented by Henkin took me by surprise, as I had no idea the sheer scale and reach of such mass mailings. For instance, the rise of the postal system went hand-in-hand with the rise of Valentine’s Day, as a new culture of exchange grew up surrounding the day (including cruel/hilarious V-Day pranks and mock valentines). Meanwhile, I loved Henkin’s discussion of the phenomenon of “dead letters,” those pieces of post that never reached their intended recipient (due to faulty address-writing, not being picked up at the post office, etc.) These letters would sit for three months in local post offices before being sent to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C. - in 1866 alone, almost 5.2 million letters ended up at this office.

Henkin wryly notes that these letters “were not quite dead, but they were certainly in critical condition.” Dead letters fascinated an American populace, and for good reason: their contents offered an incredibly intimate, almost voyeuristic, glimpse into the lives of everyday Americans. The list of items that were lost in the mail is a staggering array of oddities, including sewing machines, rattlesnake skin, and of course money of all denominations. Dead letters also revealed the inherent tension that accompanied the rapidly-expanding social worlds of everyday Americans. A letter addressed “To the big-faced Butcher, with a big wart on his nose - Cleveland, Ohio” may have worked for close-knit communities, but by the middle of the century these familiar addresses proved inadequate to meet the requirements of a national postal network. In a beautifully crafted piece of writing, Henkin writes, “Dead letters floated in the intermediate space between names and people, and between the personal recognition marked by an individually addressed letter and the impresonality of a large, mobile, and uprooted society.”

David Henkin writes engagingly, without relying on a traditional narrative format to tell his story. The volume is, to use a cliche of reviewers, exhaustively researched. The pages are teeming with specific examples and tidbits of primary research, yet it does not get bogged down by offering up footnoted research notes for their own sake. Henkin utilizes the full toolkit of the cultural and intellectual historian in order to craft a unique perspective on the growth-filled adolescent years of American history.