Mail

Americans commonly recognize television, e-mail, and instant messaging as agents of pervasive cultural change. But many of us may not realize that what we now call snail mail was once just as revolutionary. As David M. Henkin argues in The Postal Age, a burgeoning postal network initiated major cultural shifts during the nineteenth century, laying the foundation for the interconnectedness that now defines our ever-evolving world of telecommunications.

This fascinating history traces these shifts from their beginnings in the mid-1800s, when cheaper postage, mass literacy, and migration combined to make the long-established postal service a more integral and viable part of everyday life. With such dramatic events as the Civil War and the gold rush underscoring the importance and necessity of the post, a surprisingly broad range of Americans—male and female, black and white, native-born and immigrant—joined this postal network, regularly interacting with distant locales before the existence of telephones or even the widespread use of telegraphy. Drawing on original letters and diaries from the period, as well as public discussions of the expanding postal system, Henkin tells the story of how these Americans adjusted to a new world of long-distance correspondence, crowded post offices, junk mail, valentines, and dead letters.

The Postal Age paints a vibrant picture of a society where possibilities proliferated for the kinds of personal and impersonal communications that we often associate with more recent historical periods. In doing so, it significantly increases our understanding of both antebellum America and our own chapter in the history of communications.

The origins of the Post Office go back to the early years of the Tudor monarchy: Brian Tuke, a former King's Bailiff in Sandwich, was acknowledged as the first 'Master of the Posts' by Cardinal Wolsey in 1512, and went on to build up a network of 'postmasters' across England for Henry VIII. Over the following five hundred years the Royal Mail expanded to an unimaginable degree to become the largest employer in the country, and the face of the British state for most people in their everyday lives. But it also faced the demands of an increasingly commercial marketplace. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the possibility of privatising the Royal Mail has prompted passionate arguments - and has added immeasurably to the difficulties of running it.

In charting the whole of this extraordinary story, Duncan Campbell-Smith recounts a series of remarkable tales, including how postal engineers built the first programmable computer for the wartime code-breakers of Bletchley Park and how the Royal Mail managed to successfully continue delivering post to the front lines during two world wars, but also how they failed to avert the Great Train Robbery of 1963. He brings to life many of the dominant personalities in the Royal Mail's history - from Rowland Hill, who imposed a uniform penny post and set the great Victorian expansion on its way, to Tony Benn who championed the modernisation of the service in the 1960s and Tom Jackson who led the postal workers' biggest union through fifteen frequently stormy years up to 1982.

This is the first complete history of the Royal Mail up to the present day, based on its comprehensive archives, and including the first detailed account of the past half-century of Britain's postal history, made possible by privileged access to confidential records. Today's debate over the future of the Royal Mail is shown to be just the ;atest chapter in a centuries-old conflict between its roles raising revenue and serving the public. Will its employees remain, like Brian Tuke's postmasters, servants of the Crown? This book could hardly appear at a more timely moment.

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