Medium, Message and Method
Historically, the postal system was developed as a method whereby political and military leaders could convey messages of instruction to distant subordinates and, in return, receive back reports and information. Although a common early medium was the verbal report of the courier who traveled the post, best results were soon seen to come from the written medium. The system was developed in the earliest days of known civilization in Egypt, Sumer and Mohanjo-Daro, and presumably in China as well, although probably somewhat later. It was a government operation through and through.
Records show that each element (medium, message and method) changed over time. To adequately understand the significance of that change, it is useful to review some of the earlier changes. Our historical records extend from the Mari archives of early Assyrian letters covering the period from about 1850 B.C. to 1750 B.C., e.g. the time of Hammurabi. This archive contains hundreds of early letters in clay-tablet form.
The first indication of a non-governmental postal function seems to be the Harri-Mitanni archives of about 1350 B.C., and the corresponding Egyptian archive at tel el-Amarna. These two archives show both sides of commercial correspondence between the Hittite kingdoms and Egypt. The commercial correspondence may be a supplement to the state post or it may represent a supplementary private postal system at one of its earliest stages. In either case it represents a change from rulers sending messages to subordinates and receiving back reports, since private commercial interests are preeminent in it. By 900 B.C. there is no longer any reference to commercial correspondence in the Assyrian archives, suggesting that the postal system had reverted to its original form. By the time of Tiglath Pileser III (744-727 B.C.) a well-organized government post is set up. This post served as the model for the subsequent Persian post of Darius of 520-485 B.C. which was written about by Herodotus and which is the traditional basis of all later postal systems. Throughout all these years the primary medium used for letters was the clay tablet, except in Egypt where papyrus was also used. It is possible some letters were also inscribed on leather as indicated by the later Dead Sea scroll leather documents.
The early Romans used wax tablets (tabellae) as their writing medium, although ‘letter writing’ as we know it came in around 1 B.C. with the introduction of Egyptian papyrus. The main Roman postal system, thecursus publicus, was a strictly governmental system that could be used only rarely by others and then only with a written diploma signed by the political leaders. For example, Caesar in his early days had to use the tax collector post instead of the cursus publicus to convey his messages. Wealthy Roman citizens did set up their own private postal systems to run between Rome and their estates, as evidenced by references in Plautus and Petronius.
Parchment, scraped animal hides or vellum (made from the skin of unborn lambs, kids and calves), had been used at an early age, but it did not become popular until around 197-185 B.C. through its use for the Pergamum library, whose King Eumenes II was refused the use of papyrus by the Egyptians. As a general rule, vellum began to replace papyrus sheets as the key medium around 100 A.D. because it was both more readily corrected and easier to make into books or codices. Nevertheless, the tabellae continued in use for letters, particularly intimate ones such as love notes, until a much later date. We have few examples of this wax letter form from later periods because of its perishable nature.
The fifth, and current, major writing medium was paper. It began as a writing medium in China at least as far back as the 2nd century B.C., but came westward into the Muslim world as a result of the battle of Samarkand (751 A.D.), when a number of paper makers were captured. As a result, paper-making became an Arab tradition. The Chinese had used cotton to make their paper; however, the Muslims began with flax and shifted to linen rags. This is reflected by the fact that the references are to ‘rag paper’ by Peter of Cluny (1122-1150 A.D.) and ‘cloth parchment’ in 1263 A.D.
Paper was actually known as early as 1102 A.D. in Europe, for King Roger of Sicily signed a deed written on paper that year. Paper was introduced into Spain, by the Moors, and into the Byzantine Empire around 1200 A.D. if not earlier. By 1230 A.D. it had become so popular that Roman Emperor Frederick II, grandson of Roger, banned its use for public documents in lieu of vellum.
Just as the writing medium changed over the years so did the message that the posts conveyed. The first change was the addition of commercial content in order to satisfy the private merchants whose economic well-being depended upon such information. This introduction occurred at least twice before the Renaissance when commercial content became primary, as noted in the correspondence of the Medici and Corsini families now in philatelic hands. If not included in the official mail stream, it was conveyed by separate private merchant posts.
A second change in the message was the gradual separation out and publication of official notices and other significant events in published gazettes. This seems to have happened first during the early days of Julius Caesar’s consulship at Rome when he introduced a daily gazette, the Acta Diurna, shortly after coming to power. This gazette and its successors reported official acts of the Roman Senate, important births and deaths, and abstracts from the posts arriving from around the empire. By about 100 A.D. Juvenal in his Sixth Satire notes that, in addition to the copies posted in the Forum and other public places, private copies were circulated in Rome. The Acta Diurna lasted until the fall of the Western Empire, and was succeeded by the Venetian gazetti of the 1 500s.
A similar official monthly-events gazette was generated in China by 600 A.D., the Peking Tsing-Pao. A monthly version was soon supplemented by a daily version that lasted into modern times. These official gazettes eventually evolved into public newspapers such as we know today, with the Newe Zeytung of 1526 the pamphlet-newspapers. Soon the strictly licensed printers papers as the weekly Frankfurter Journal of 1615, the weekly London News of 1622 the 6-centime Gazette de Paris of 1631, one of whose correspondents was Louis XIII. It was early a matter of state policy that postmasters should forward “the first and best account” of all news passing through them.
By 1665 England had a regular public newspaper in the Oxford Gazette (later the London Gazette published by Henry Muddiman, a Royalist journalist, who established it to challenge his successor as Surveyor of the Press. Gazettes were freely distributed to postmasters as part of their “emoluments” of office. Even before 1700 there was a short-lived lived cheap (farthing) press, but newspaper taxes soon forced a rate increase, and a cheap press did not return until 1840.
There was a short-lived daily newspaper in 1695, the Post Boy, but the first popular daily paper was the London Courant of 1702. Since postmasters were required to gather news, and as a number obtained printing licenses, many early ones also became printers and publishers of newspapers. The remarkable concordance between the two professions in America is clearly set forth in Isaiah Thomas’s 1810 seminal History of Printing in America.
One of the early gazette developments was the ‘publication’ of private gazettes in manuscript form. These avoided the licensing requirements of official printers. Further, they met the needs of their wealthy sponsors in supplying news, gossip and personal and literary materials for him, his hangers-on and his friends. It is probable that America’s first ‘newspaper,’ the New Netherland Mercury (1656-74), was such a publication sponsored by the Dutch patroons such as van Rennsylaer. While references have survived, few copies of these, if any, still exist.
What these manu-script gazettes were like can best be seen in a famous set of published gazettes, the Tattler and Spectator papers (1709-1712) put out by Richard Steele, former post master of Merton College at Oxford, and Joseph Add-ison, former royal secretary to Prince Eugene and later secretary to Lord Halifax. Their gazettes provided news, social gossip, political satire and literary essays. This type of gazette was the forerunner of later literary and general magazines and as such was given special postal privileges.
The first printed newspaper in America, Pub-lic Occurrences, was printed in 1699 and did not survive its initial issues, having run afoul of the censor. Subsequently, regular Am-erican newspapers began in 1704 in Boston with The Boston News-Letter, figure 77, under the aegis of the postmaster, a licensed prin-ter. Early papers were freely exchanged by post.
As competitive papers arose in various towns, however, they were refused free entry into the mail system, as Benjamin Franklin bitterly complained in regard to his battle with Philadelphia Postmaster Bradford’s official paper. To solve the problem a new subscription-based distribution system evolved just as earlier generations had used private tabellarii or the subsequent merchant couriers. The subscription posts developed, via the committees of correspondence, into rival American postal systems in the 1770s, until the official Congressional system gained control. Private posts continued a half-hearted life from then until the 1840s when they became a major competitor to the government and were legally suppressed by act of Congress.
Newspapers were not a significant portion of the government mail stream prior to the American Revolution. They began to be significant during the post-war Confederation period with a major dispute arising over who was to pay for distribution them through the mails. This dispute is covered in the January 1992 Collectors Club Philatelist portion of my series on ‘The Post Office During Confederation.’ The result was the dismissal of Postmaster General Hazard at the beginning of President Washington’s term of office and a decision to subsidize newspapers through the mails.
The subsidy meant that from 1794 into the Civil War era, newspapers made up 70% of the bulk, or weight, of the mail stream, although they contributed only about 10% of postal revenues. In fact, every paper was carried at a net loss, if one is to accept the data A. D. Smith calculated in his Development of Rates of Postage. He calculated that by 1885 the average English mail piece cost less than a half-pence (U. S. .9l4¢), with newspapers costing more than Id. (U.S. 2.126¢), with the result that each newspaper was subsidized by about ½d (U.S. 1¢).
This loss was an important factor in why the U.S. Post Office operated at a deficit prior to the Civil War.
In the United States in 1847, the annual mail stream consisted of 95.8 million letters and 118.3 million pieces of printed matter, of which 107.7 million were for periodical subscribers, according to Richard Kielbowicz’sNews in the Mail. From about a half million newspapers delivered by mail carriers in the leading cities having such service in 1851, local carrier delivery of papers rose to a total of 1.5 million in the 16 largest U.S. cities by 1861. New York City accounted for about 600,000 of this. At the same time The New York Times of April 6, 1860, reported that New York City newspapers alone sent 100,000 papers daily to out-of-town subscribers utilizing railroad expresses. As early as 1852, only one in five newspapers reached subscribers by mail; the percent continued to decline throughout the rest of the century. Although newspapers dominated the mail stream, the mails did not dominate newspaper distribution. Both newsstand distribution and private delivery systems predominated.
In 1867 the annual U.S. foreign mails totaled about 10.3 million letters and 4.8 million newspapers, so that again the newspapers dominated the mail stream. Smith estimated that by 1914 English mails still carried about 20% more newspapers (30 million) than letters.
Magazines, which had begun to burgeon late in the colonial period, were not favored by postal regulations and either had to be classed as newspapers or pay high letter rates. Magazine rates were set in 1794, but they were high. As late as 1804 Postmaster General Granger noted that postmasters “are not to receive” magazines or pamphlets if inconvenient. In 1815 Postmaster General Meigs decided magazines should be excluded but made a secret exception for religious magazines. As late as 1838 magazines accounted for only about 10% of the newspaper tonnage in the mails, a low percentage considering their growing popularity. Literary miscellanies of fiction developed in the 1830s, but hostile postal rates helped lead to their demise by the early l850s. It was not until the l860s that magazines entered the mails on the same footing as newspapers.
While total periodicals still made up about 50% of the mail stream as late as World War I, newspapers were increasingly distributed outside the mail stream while magazines were not. Further, beginning with the new reduced prices for circulars, introduced in 1851 and 1852, businesses increasingly took to the mail stream to tout their wares. Junk mail was moving into its heyday.
Summarizing, expanded economic activity during the Renaissance required adding commercial information to the mail stream. At the same time rising literacy rates, together with the major trading houses and nobility, which had access to either official mails or private couriers, added private personal messages. The private contents of Venetian, Medici and Corsini letters reflect this shift in the mail stream. The basic shift from state correspondence to largely private letters occurred during the reign of Elizabeth I in England and simultaneously on the continent. The old basis of mail, the government notices, moved into the medium of gazettes which then evolved into newspapers and periodicals. The mail stream became essentially commercial and private.
The industrial revolution brought both frequency and celerity to the methods of mail delivery. A network of rail lines, part of which contributed to the Ferrari fortune, webbed Europe. America was spanned by 1869, while the Trans-Siberian rail linked the Atlantic and Pacific across Russia by 1904. Although the Capetown-to-Cairo link was never completed, rails did run north from the Cape into Rhodesia before the close of the 19th century, and the Nile River steamers joined with the Sudanese rails to link the Mediterranean with Lake Victoria. In South America a Buenos Ayres-to-Valpariso rail link was completed by 1910.
Crossing the Atlantic took months in colonial days; it took four days by 1900. The Suez Canal, opened in 1869, created a sea link to the Far East that had been first opened in 1380 B.C., reopened by the Ptolemy’s in 285 B.C. and reopened again under both Trajan and the early Muslim conquerors; but it was closed from 770 A.D. to modern times. This new water link vastly shortened cargo times to the Far East; but since mail lines had already been run overland through Suez, mail times from London to Hong Kong dropped only from two months in 1845 to one month by 1911. Rail transit had crossed the Panamanian Isthmus by January 22, 1855, but ship transit had to await completion of the Panama Canal in 1911.
Private competition with government mails pushed local deliveries within cities to four or five times daily, so a note written in the morning could be confirmed in the afternoon for a late-day meeting.
As noted above, the content of the messages in the mail stream had become increasingly commercial and personal over the years since the industrial revolution. This was to change as a result of a new invention in 1876, but the change would not be critical until the jazz era of the l920s. The invention was the telephone; and it was first seen as a link between leaders and followers — a one-to-many broadcast like the original mails of almost 4,000 years earlier. By the l920s telephones had created a critical mass of 50 million calls daily.
The development of a critical telephone mass meant that multiple daily mail deliveries were no longer so vital in cities. It reduced the need for messengers and hugely increased employment for females. By making communications between offices and between offices and homes easy and rapid, it spurred the rise of skyscraper construction and suburban living.
A significant effect of the rise of the telephone was a shift in the nature of the mail message. Personal messages now went primarily by telephone, reversing a trend that had begun in the Renaissance. News messages had already been largely eliminated. What was left by the jazz era was a mail stream that was much more commercial in nature than had hitherto existed. Junk mail began to be the major component of the mail stream. This change had a significant effect upon collecting. No longer were family correspondences saved to the same extent as during the preceding century. Further, businesses found that it was convenient to use meters and imprints rather than stamps on their mail, reducing the proportion of adhesive stamps available to collectors over the years.