10/16 Reaction to Henkin (Option 3)

An argument about how Americans used the Post Office in the nineteenth century that intrigued me was the passage regarding transient newspapers, defined as “journals posted by someone other than their publishers.”[1]

“Despite their shortcomings as media of interpersonal expression, transient newspapers in the pre-1845 era were temptingly inexpensive stand-ins for costly letters. The difference in price was sufficient to induce many postal users to see how far the might stretch the epistolary powers of a printed journal. A common, illegal practice of marking newspapers with personal information reflected popular perceptions of both the suitability and the limitations of newspapers as correspondences and called into open question the proposes of the nation’s growing postal system.”[2]

I found this argument intriguing for two reasons, the first of which is why were letters so much more expensive than newspapers to mail? I did a little research and found newspapers did not account for as much of postal revenue as I originally thought. Excerpts from Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse documented that: “In 1832, newspapers generated no more than 15 percent of total postal revenue, while making up as much as 95 percent of the weight.” Historian Richard R. John stated: “on a typical day…the incoming mail at the Washington post office contained one tidy packet of letters and twenty-one enormous sacks of newspaper, each of which weighed between 150 and 200 pounds. No other class of mailable items enjoyed such favorable rates.” Postmasters were to charge letter rates for any newspapers containing, as Henkin wrote, “some cabalistic mark on the margin or the wrapper of a newspaper.”[3] I could not understand why newspapers, clearly the bulkier items, would cost so less. By far the funniest form of “cabalist concealment,” as Henkin refers to it, was found in the New Orleans Picayune “in which a milliner sent a paper from New York to Boston addressed to John Garigo Smith. The fictitious middle name…was an acronym for “Goods All Received in Good Order.”[4] These clever ways of circumventing costly letter fees illustrated clearly that many people in the country (not just merchants) were eager to communicate with one another.

According to Henkin: “Transient newspapers continued to flow through the mails after the reductions of 1845, but not in the same proportions and not with the same function.”[5] In addition, “after 1845, most mail was measured by the indifferent criterion of weight, rather than by an assessment of the kind of text it was or the number of pages it comprised.”[6] This brings up the second reason I was intrigued, as the author doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of a legislative explanation for the reduction. It is clear that he is focusing more on the social aspects of this phenomenon, as “Americans were demonstrating social uses of the mail that had little to do with the printing industry.”[7] What were the dynamics behind important postal reforms? Were these reforms because of the social changes or did the social changes bring about the reforms?


[1] David M. Henkin, The Postal Age (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 43.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 47.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] Ibid., 51.


4 thoughts on “10/16 Reaction to Henkin (Option 3)

  1. I, too, found it interesting that letters were more expensive than newspapers. Your analysis of this idea was well thought out and enlightening. I believe that transient newspapers, a loophole discovered by Americans, shows the fervor of people to communicate with each other now that the Post Office was efficiently allowing people too communicate from distant geographic positions. I think this also shows Americans’ urgency to try and communicate with others now that the communication systems in America were much more efficient. Henkin talks about the cultural influence that the Postal Service had, and it can be seen through your analysis. I was wondering if you felt that the transient newspapers could have also been a way of protesting the political side of the Post Office since the price of letters was regulated by the government?


    • Thanks for the comment, Pat. No, I don’t feel transient newspapers were a way of disapproving the political side of the Post Office. There is no evidence in Henkin’s book that this was being done as any formal protest. Henkin’s argument was clear he felt “Americans were demonstrating social uses of the mail” (p. 51). The book ‘Print Culture Histories Beyond the Metropolis corroborates that the use of transient newspapers was simply a social use for getting around the ridiculously high letter postage: “Sending newspapers via the postal system was the most cost-effective way that private citizens could communicate with one another over long distances” (p. 126).


  2. You went to the right place to find evidence about letter and newspaper postage rates (I used Richard John for the lecture portion of our discussion about a communications infrastructure in the early United States).

    As for your second question, that’s something we should discuss on Monday in class with the full book read. Henkin makes a series of choices in emphasis about the role of culture and politics that are worth exploring in depth.


    • I figured Richard R. John was a great place to find evidence because both Starr and Henkin mention him so many times in their books. Although it is extra reading, it does pay to look at footnotes from time to time. Henkin definitely chooses to emphasize the role that culture played during the postal age. Ironically, he argued that it was the post office itself that initiated the cultural changes that occurred; I thought it was the other way around. For example, before the postal reduction of 1845, mail was not a part of everyday life for colonial Americans. After the reduction, Americans adjusted to corresponding to long-distance friends and relatives and packed post offices brought with them issues like infidelity. The post office, according to Henkin, created new cultural beliefs and practices in colonial society.


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