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Pushing the Envelope

The Postal Service may stop delivering mail on Saturdays, but written words are thriving in the age of email

The earliest postal networks were designed as instruments for extending political power over larger distances. The Bible's Book of Esther tells of an entire postal system with just one sender. Deliverymen mounted on fast steeds dispatched messages on behalf of the Persian King Ahasuerus, the only person authorized to send mail.

[POSTAL] Ross MacDonald

Our current system serves very different functions, though there's a growing suspicion that it, too, has become a relic of a bygone era. The latest sign of trouble came last week when the Postmaster General proposed eliminating Saturday mail delivery to save on labor costs. With the postal service flirting with such a major change, we are left wondering whether snail mail is on a slow march toward extinction.

The drop in business of the United States Postal Service (since 1971 an independent agency controlled by Congress) strikes ominous chords. But the importance of the written word in our culture is not at risk. Postal service has never simply been about writing and print, and many of the new media that have undermined the USPS as a business operation have actually reinforced the place of writing in daily life.

Our attachment to the mail remains powerful despite its decline. Our houses, apartments and offices are all designed to receive mail; we often allow letter carriers special access to our homes. And the regular rhythms of mail delivery (despite lapses on Sunday since 1912) have been central to our experience of a single day as distinct from the next.

Some among us worry that postal volume has decreased because modern communications devices have left us disinclined to send thoughtful prose to distant friends and family. Yet it is important to remember that letters and mail are not the same thing. Letters take multiple forms and travel through many different media, while mail systems carry plenty of objects other than personal correspondence. Mail systems have not always facilitated social interaction.

Early postal networks, as in the Persian case, were mouthpieces of empire. In later periods, such as in medieval Europe, mail systems began accommodating more users. A post might operate within an elite society—a monastic order or a university—or, more commonly, among a group of merchants, though states claimed a general monopoly over the right to transmit mail over established routes. By the early modern era, merchants used these services often; mailbags were full of business correspondence, not romantic notes or self-reflection.

The 1792 creation of the U.S. Post Office was a very important development in American public life. But the original U.S. mail system was not really about personal letter-writing. For more than half a century, mailed matter consisted primarily of printed newspapers and most of the rest was business correspondence. Most personal letters were conveyed outside the mail through personal acquaintances who happened to be traveling to the desired location. Few Americans expected to keep in steady contact with people they did not see.

America was not a nation of thoughtful, patient letter-writers back when communications media were simpler and slower. Only in the second half of the 19th century did ordinary Americans begin using the mail to conduct regular relationships with friends and family at a distance—and by then the country was covered with railroad tracks and telegraph wires. The first American postcard (issued in 1873) came not long before the introduction of the telephone. Most of the ostensibly old-fashioned features of snail mail that we treasure, including free home delivery and purpose-built post offices, didn't arise until the middle decades of the 19th century, when industrial production and telecommunications were speeding up the pace of everyday life.

The letters people wrote in the 19th century were not always eloquent, intimate or even very long. Much surviving correspondence from the period is formulaic, rushed or businesslike. For some, the dominance of the business letter made it hard to produce the much-celebrated personal epistle. In a mid-19th century letter to his brother, the future financier Jay Cooke offered an apology that anticipated the predicament familiar to many e-mail users: "I write so many letters that I almost lose the form and spirit of a private one."

While electronic communication has cut into the business of the older mail system, it is a mistake to equate this development with the death of the letter. Already by the last quarter of the 20th century, the telephone effectively displaced the handwritten letter as the principal instrument of both long-distance communication and casual daily contact. By the 1970s, only those Americans with limited access to phones (the poor, travelers abroad, prison inmates, children away at summer camp) relied habitually on the mail for forging and maintaining relationships at a distance.

Very few of the countless messages we now exchange daily over email would have been committed to paper and mailed 20 years ago. Many of them would have been communicated over the phone, in person or through broadcast media. Plenty of those messages would never have been communicated at all—which is of course one of our most powerful complaints against email.

From that perspective, the spread of email has actually revived the culture of letter-writing. Interactions that used to be conducted orally are now written. And while email prose is notorious for its abbreviations, ellipses and informality, compared to phone conversations or face-to-face contact, it is strikingly styled and epistolary. Many of us have cultivated new epistolary styles over the past decade and a half, and discovered for the first time the epistolary voices of our friends, relatives and co-workers.

Though we exchange more letters in the age of email, the new medium has undoubtedly transformed the way we write to each other, both by accelerating the frequency of exchange and by making it easier to quote, browse and re-circulate—all acts that were more laborious in earlier systems of letter-writing.

By the middle of the 19th century, the catalog of objects washing up in Dead Letter Offices testified to the range of goods postal patrons saw fit to mail. It was a kitchen sink spilling over with photographs, seed samples, locks of hair, dress samples, socks, screwdrivers, pills, books and even small frying pans.

The troubles of the USPS have nothing to do with the art of letter-writing, lost or otherwise. Its business has been diverted by rival delivery companies as well as by newer media that allow people to pay their bills instantly, purchase paperless airline tickets and read magazines online. Proposed rate hikes and service reductions will be inconvenient, but they will not make us read and write letters any less frequently.

—David M. Henkin is Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley and author of "The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America."

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