Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Going Postal

Most Americans take for granted the daily arrival of mail at their doorsteps. Some may have reflected on the existence of the postal service only because their increasing use of electronic mail has affected how, when, and why they choose to write a letter, affix a stamp, and drop it into a corner mailbox.

Historian David M. Henkin has reintroduced us to the era when the postal system was just becoming established and Americans were just learning how to use the mail in his The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), ISBN-10:0-226-32720-5. Henkin leads us through a discussion of the establishment of the postal service and the communications revolution it generates, the emergence of the post office as a local institution, the transformation of the idea of the personal letter, and the rise of the notion of junk mail. Individuals interested in how personal documents changed in the nineteenth century certainly will want to read this book.

Henkin reminds his readers that the old style postal service remains important even in our digitally networked age and that its nineteenth century version laid the “cultural foundation . . . for the experiences of interconnectedness that are the hallmarks of the brave new world of telecommunications” (p. ix). As he demonstrates over and over again in his study, “Before telephones, before recorded sound, before the transcontinental railroad, and even before the spread of commercial telegraphy, postal exchanges began habituating large groups of Americans to new expectations of contact with distant places” (p. x). The postal service was initially established to serve business, but like the later experience with the telephone, it quickly became a critical system for supporting individuals in their personal and family lives (as Henkin richly describes in his chapters on letter-writing in the California Gold Rush and Civil War). Henkin points to the experiences with the post during the American Civil War as particularly important: “None of this intense and enduring interest in solders’ letters is remarkable, and it is hardly surprising that Americans on both sides of the conflict preserved, circulated, and published Civil War correspondence – and have continued to so ever since. What is worth noting, however, is how a national investment in these letters as historically significant and personally poignant served, in the 1860s, the secondary cultural function of dramatizing the role of mail in everyday life. By 1865, the war experience had given most Americans additional reasons to think of the post as the repository and conduit for the sort of epistolary self-representation that united families across great distances and preserved family identity over time” (pp. 145-146).

What Henkin tracks is certainly a major transformation in American life. Over less than half a century, Americans move from being a people who experience the arrival of mail rarely to being accustomed to receiving it daily. Rich with statistical data and embellished with particular examples and cases, The Postal Age is a major contribution both to the origins of our modern information society and our understanding of how individuals created and maintained personal documents. Henkin identifies the rich documentary reserves for such a study: “Despite the exaggerated aura of secrecy and privacy that surrounds personal correspondence (and despite the flimsy materials, ephemeral purposes, and unheeded wishes for self-destruction that attended so much epistolary contact), an extraordinary number of letters have survived, filling historical societies, manuscript collections, and private attics throughout the country. The sheer volume and diversity of this archive is daunting – and potentially confusing – but there is no better repository of information concerning the uses to which Americans put their increasingly accessible postal network and the expectations they brought to it” (p. 6). Henkin also draws on diaries of the period, mixing their discussion about the mail and reading letters in with newspaper accounts, literary journals, government reports, etiquette and letter-writing manuals, and an array of other documentary materials. Using such sources, Henkin reveals how the letter, and mail in general, became such a pervasive and desired item that many social commentators of the day warned of its more pernicious influences on the morals of youth, women, and others, especially as strangers could now interact more freely and threaten one’s privacy, livelihood, and time.

The Postal Age is an important addition to our understanding of both the evolution of personal recordkeeping and the origins of the modern information era. Archivists and other records professionals will learn a great deal about how the common person began to use the increased potential of a postal service to build networks of personal, family, and business arrangements. Those interested in the idea of a modern information age or its particulars, from telecommunications to concerns with privacy and secrecy, also will be illuminated. Too many assume that what we are experiencing today is the result exclusively of computer technologies, but Henkin shows that there were immense social, political, economic and other factors involved in laying the foundation for our presented global networked age. As Henkin concludes, in relating our present era to the earlier one, the “persistence of mail as a slower, seemingly more immanent form of communication in the age of instantaneous electronic exchange is potentially misleading. Despite all the changes that separate us from the postal culture of the mid-nineteenth century, our pervasive expectations of complete contact, of boundless accessibility, actually link us back to the cultural moment when ordinary Americans first experienced the mail in similar terms. The world we now inhabit belongs to the extended history of that moment” (p. 175).