The Postal Age


If you love mail, don’t miss David M. Henkin’s The Postal Age (2006). Granted, it’s a bit academic in tone; Henkin uses words like “monitory” (as in something that conveys a warning) and “trope” (commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés) but he must be forgiven. The material he has gathered is delicious, and the insights are many. A few of my favorite bits:

“I know not whereabouts this letter will find thee, but I throw it upon the winds.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne to his fiancée in 1840

Did it 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 a green leaf in the bill of Noah’s Dove?” — Thomas Carlyle in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I hope I have not made too free in anything I said–I wanted to write as if I was talking to you.” — Lethe Jackson, a slave, writing to her master’s daughter in 1838

In Cleveland, in the 1850s, a letter arrived addressed: “To the big-faced Butcher, with a big wart on his nose.” The local postmen knew exactly who the letter was meant for, but all of them were too afraid to deliver it.

Between 1844 and 1865, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received more than 400 requests for his autograph, and referred to his growing stack of unanswered mail “as huge and inexhaustible as the guano on the odorous Chinchi Islands.”

Virginia Penny, writing in 1863 of employment opportunities for women, cautioned those who might want to work at the post office: “The class of women who go to the general post office constantly for letters are of a kind respectable women would not like to come into contact with. The majority receive letters under fictitious names.” Penny was referring to prostitutes, who used the privacy of the post and post office boxes to arrange meetings with clients.


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