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Bearcats Box Lunch: The Postal Age

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Some thoughts on one of my favorite books

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PETA Goes Postal: Bob Barker and Pamela Anderson Unveil Vegetarian Icons Postage Sheet Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

If any of you are looking for something to read this fall, might I suggest David Henkin’s The Postal Age. It will appeal to a wide range of historically-minded readerships.

A series of reforms in the pricing of the federal mail during the 1840s and 1850s widened the availability of postal service to ordinary Americans. David Henkin’s The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America explores how the subsequent explosion in the volume of interpersonal correspondence led to the development of an American “postal culture.”

Personal habits and norms developed around a new system of interconnectedness which enabled distant friends and family to remain in intimate contact. As the nation expanded across the continent, Americans retained what Henkin terms “a special kind of access” to people living in other parts of the country.

The post office emerged as a distinct public space in which this “special kind of access” took place. Private correspondence fostered the public spectacle of going to the post office. Henkin’s most intriguing chapter, entitled “Playing Post Office,” describes the space occupied by the civic institution in rural and urban areas.

In rural areas, post offices often occupied a corner in the general store. For many towns, the postal service constituted the community’s primary interaction with the federal government and, more generally, the outside world. While rural post offices brought together townsfolk who already knew one another, the urban post office brought strangers into physical proximity. Efforts by Victorian reformers to curb interaction between men and unaccompanied women in this sphere of anonymity failed to alleviate fears that the post office encouraged nefarious activities.

Henkin grounds his study of the emerging “postal culture” in two defining events in nineteenth century America: the Gold Rush and the Civil War.

For more on this fascinating book, I suggest you head over to Amazon and buy yourself a copy.