The Post Office: Teaching People How To Read Since Antebellum America!

Literacy is an essential component of any modern intelligent society. If a population is illiterate it can not only make the basic functioning of society difficult, but it can also make long distance communication impossible without vocal based technology. In an age before the telephone, illiteracy could create powerful barriers for communication that could not be traversed without creativity or difficulty. Therefore, any means for a population to become literate or practice their reading and writing skills is extremely important for societal progress. Henkin’s puts forth an interesting argument on this idea within his monograph The Postal Age. Within the very first pages of the book Henkin argues that many Americans in the 19th century utilized letter writing (and to a certain extent letter reading), as “an occasion for developing or showcasing their skills in composition or penmanship” (Henkin, pg. 24). He then goes on to examine various examples of this interesting epistolary phenomenon; such as the case of Elijah P. Marrs, a former slave and later minister in Kentucky who utilized the mail to learn to read and write. Henkin’s then uses this trend to make the larger claim that the Post Office’s pricing reforms of the mid-19th century, which made writing and sending letters more affordable, played a considerably active part in “encouraging the acquisition, cultivation, and maintenance of literacy” (Henkin, pg. 24). I believe that this argument presented by Henkin is extremely interesting and telling of the society and culture of antebellum America. From reading Paul Star’s book, The Creation of the Media, I understand that the United States by the mid-19th century was far more literate than most of Europe due to a combination of growth in education and the proliferation of newspapers in the early republican era (Starr, pg. 105). However, I think Henkin’s idea surrounding increasing literacy in 19th century America is equally valid and showcases the immense transformative power that the United States Post Office had on society.

Overall I find Henkin’s argument interesting in many regards when considering the history of American communication. Firstly, I find it astonishing that letter writing in itself was not only utilized as a teaching tool for illiterate white Americans or white children, but as Henkin reveals, also as a way for African Americans to learn to read and write as well.  This gives the United States Post Office an interesting (and likely unintended) power in the antebellum period over the lives of African Americans seeking to climb the societal ladder. With people utilizing the post office more and more due to decreases in pricing, the nation would have become flooded with the written world without any definitive way make sure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands; such as those of African Americans. Therefore, I believe Henkin’s ideas concerning the link between the rise of the Post Office and literacy could be very interesting if one were to examine how this link impacted African Americans and in turn what effect (if any) it had upon them gaining agency in antebellum society. Another aspect of Henkin’s argument that I find interesting, is his view that letter writing in the 19th century was a medium for individuals to show off their “penmanship”. I find this particularly interesting because I believe that this trend no longer exists when examining modern methods of communication. In an age of text messaging and audio-video based technology it seems that the penmanship (or perhaps keyboardmanship) often showcased in the letters of earlier centuries has become less important in the face of speed. In the 21st century it seems that more emphasis is put on the speed that we can receive or send messages, rather than whether or not the message one sends is of any real value or of good composition. That being said, I believe that there are some exceptions to this tendency in some mediums of 21st century communication; such as blog posts. However, I think that overall for the most part penmanship has become less important in modern times.

The aforementioned passage does raise several questions for me as a student of media and communications history. Firstly, as I explained prior, Henkin’s argument leads me to wonder; what were the effects of an epistolary based education on African Americans in pre-emancipation society? The passage also makes me question where in time did the emphasis on penmanship and composition become secondary to speed; and also whether or not text messages and the like are in fact expressions of penmanship but with different judgmental parameters? Finally, Henkin’s passage also leads me to wonder whether or not this correlation between decreased mail cost and rises in literacy appears in other parts of the world?

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

Starr, Paul. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

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2 thoughts on “The Post Office: Teaching People How To Read Since Antebellum America!

  1. I don’t know whether I have an answer to your question about penmanship and speed (though my instincts hesitate to set it up too easily as a dichotomy), but it’s a good question. I’d be surprised if the transition started much before the 1960s or 1970s, when typing became much more prevalent in American schools. But I could be wrong on my timing.

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  2. I agree that literacy is an essential component to the foundation of any society. The post office definitely allowed for people to develop their reading and writing skills, but it also was able to demonstrate the resourcefulness of those who were illiterate but still had a message to send. Slaves who could not read or write depended on other literate friends to write was was dictated to them. The post office connected people across the nation through communication, and also in smaller communities through this dependence on others. The emergence of the post office as a major medium of communication offered motivation for people to either learn how to read and write or find someone who could. It would have been much more reliable for people to write their own letters instead of trusting someone else to write exactly what you want them to.

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