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A Brief and Tangential History of Mail

September 1, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Harrison Middleton University's upcoming Quarterly Discussion will take a look at a number of historic letters. Personal correspondence offers a rich and fascinating look at culture and society. Dating back to ancient Rome, many letters (that remain today) were considered official documents and would have been kept in the public record. Such is the case with Plutarch's letter “Consolation to His Wife”. Therefore, while the letter is directed solely to his wife, it should be viewed in a broader context. In fact, most statesmen and women have kept meticulous records of letters, notes, and correspondence. These pieces of dialogue give us insight into historical events, lives, trends and so much more. In our Quarterly Discussion, we will view a number of letters, ancient to modern, in an attempt to better understand cultural norms and shifts.

Therefore, I thought it fitting to look into the history of correspondence itself. Since that is a massive project, today's blog hits on only a few random pieces of data to pique your interest. The following statistics are just a sampling of postal-related curiosities that can be interpreted in a number of ways. They give rich insight into historical events, leadership, economics, as well as social constructs. If this list entertains you, or sparks curiosity, please consider joining our Quarterly Discussion. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information. Enjoy!

(Please note that most of this information came from the Statistical History of USPS.)

In ancient Rome, official letters traveled via the cursus publicus, which was a series of forts and stations to provide fresh horses for official couriers. They were meant to be for official use only, but often fell prey to bribes. Unofficial letters would usually have been delivered much more slowly in the hands of a friend, neighbor or acquaintance who happened to travel near the recipient.

In 1520, Manuel I of Portugal created the first publicly available letter carrier service. Charles the I of England followed this example in 1635.

In 1792, the rate to send a letter less than thirty miles in the United States was six cents. In 1816, all rates doubled to raise money for the bankrupt nation, as a result of the War of 1812. (However, the double was repealed one year later).

In 1845, the United States Postal Service (USPS) changed its billing system from “not over 30 miles” to “not over 300 miles”. This, of course, coincided with the rise of the industrial revolution and the railroad. In 1851, the distance changed once again from 300 miles to 3,000 miles.

The number of postal cards (official USPS cards issued through the USPS), has steadily declined since 1951. At about this time, personal cards (a category which includes the kind of postcards one finds on vacation) began to overtake the market. Though still 2 million less than official post office issued notes in 1951, it wasn't until 1968 that statistics prove people preferred to mail personal cards over post office cards. In other words, paper and cards had become its own commodity.

In 1975, USPS began charging for additional weight. Prior to that, it had charged a flat fee based upon distance to destination. We now take for granted that we can order a package from anywhere, anytime, but that service is extremely modern. With better packaging and availability of products (boxes, envelopes, mailers, etc), it became feasible to send larger envelopes and packages.

The USPS began tabulating the amount of presorted postcards in 1977. These promotional cards implies a technological advance in printing and advertising. Perhaps it also implies a growing commodification or a different way of creating and grouping customers. (Personally, I wonder if the distance of these presorted mailers has changed over the last 40 years. For example, if a restaurant wants to be noticed, it no longer relies on passers-by, but sends mail to local neighborhoods. I wonder if the definition of neighborhood has changed in some way and if that change is reflected in the presorted mailing stats?)

In 1997, the USPS combined the categories of stamped postcards with stamped cards (though presorted mail remains a separate category). In other words, mail has declined sharply in a digital age, making it unnecessary to split the two categories.

Though there is no clear trend yet, since the data is too new, it appears that presorted postcards hit a high between 2005 and 2008. Though they have steadily declined, presorted mail currently outnumbers personal mail by a couple of million.

I encourage you to peek at the statistics compiled by the census and USPS. It's vastly entertaining – especially when linked to some sort of reading and discussion.

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