Book Review: The Postal Age
Henkin, David M., The Postal Age. Chicago: Chicago Press, 2006.
“Many of us may not realize that what we now call snail mail was once just as revolutionary as e-mail and text messages are today.” Today’s generation may not be quite aware of the long journey Americans have traveled from the Postal Age up to what we now call the Information Age. As an examination of the rise of the American postal system in the middle decades of the 19th century, David M Henkin’s, The Postal Age offers up a fascinating blend of intellectual and thematic history. In his book, Henkin highlights new practices and new expectations as ordinary Americans swiftly turned something novel into something normal-into habit, into culture.
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The letters were both perceived and treated as treasured mementoes. This monumental time period allowed for the endless possibilities of interactions across the country. 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. Finally, the last chapter I found to be the most fascinating: “Mass Mailings: Valentines, Junk Mail, and Dead Letters.” The information Henkin presented took me by surprise, as I had no idea the magnitude of such mass mailings. For instance, the correlation between the rise of the postal system and Valentine’s Day! As a new culture of exchanging love letters swept the nation, the number of cruel and hilarious Valentine’s Day pranks and mock valentines being sent skyrocketed. Moreover, I loved his discussion of the phenomenon of dead letters, the letters that-for whatever reason-never reached their intended recipient. In 1866 alone, the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C. received almost 5.2 million letters. Dead letters fascinated America, and for good reason: their contents offered an