"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The history of mail

Fascinating article in History Today about the history of the English post office.  I know it sounds dry, but it captures just what communication meant to people, and how it changed their lives.  There are great anecdotes about heartsick lovers and worried parents desperately waiting for the next post.  Before that, one might worry, but there was no way of knowing, so it would be pushed to the side a little bit.  There are some interesting echoes to today, where if you don't receive a response email within 15 minutes you start to pace sweatily around the room.  The ability to communicate quicker really screws with our ability to handle delays, and greatly alters our relationships with people.  This is old hat, of course, but it is thrilling to read about how it started.

The article also goes into how private companies formed, and the intrigue of government bodies.  For a Pynchon fan, it is impossible to read segments like this...

Increased literacy, trade and an interest in news soon led merchants and the public to demand access to the post. But it wasn’t until 1635 that a London merchant Thomas Witherings (d.1651) offered a proposal to organise the first postal system for public use.A Royal Proclamation for the ‘settling of the Letter-Office of England and Scotland’ gave Witherings the authority to establish fixed, regular posts. Each post town had its own mail bag to and from London,while foot posts carried letters further on. The central London office at Bishopsgate co-ordinated mail on six main roads, charging 2d a letter for up to 80 miles.

After foundering during the Civil War, Witherings’ plan was re-instated in 1657 and posts set up by rival entrepreneurs were shut down.After the Restoration in 1660 Charles II intensified intelligence activities on post roads that passed through London. Secretaries of State were given the right to open letters. It was rumoured that state employees could take impressions of seals, imitate writing perfectly and copy a letter in a minute by pressing damp tissue paper over the ink.At the same time, the Six Clerks of the Road in London were informally allowed to frank newspapers to local postmasters, who provided drink, gossip and horses, as well as news. 

...without thinking about Tristero.

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