Research via Royal Mail

I am starting my European research adventure at the British Postal Museum and Archive in London. The archive holds all British postal records in existence–from eighteenth-century postal mail routes in Jamaica to the very first instruction manual for British postal workers in 1660 to Victorian era stagecoach contracts for high speed delivery. As the archive can attest, post offices are notorious for their paperwork. Postal paperwork might be inconvenient for a patron in a rush, but this bureaucratic trail provides great insight for present day researchers. While it might seem like the cost of posting a letter from New York to Boston in 1692 is minutiae of little significance, I argue quite the opposite: these numbers give us a glimpse of who could access this emergent network of exchange. In a time where individuals were geographically isolated–before railroads and telephones and the internet–the post provided an institutionalized sense of interconnectivity. The post office linked (and continues to link) distant individuals in a web of regular exchange. As a scholar, I hope to investigate how the apparatus of the post office created a new set of practices and expectations, new forms of intimacy and alienation in the United States and abroad.

Thus far, I would like to share two exciting finds from the British Postal Archive:

1. I found evidence that at least one post office in New York formally accepted wampum as a form of currency. Wampum are traditional sacred shell beads of Native American tribes in the northeast United States. In colonial America, the beads were used as a form of currency between Native Americans and colonists.

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While the presence of wampum in the New York postal record may simply evidence the irregularity of currency in colonial North America, it might suggest that the early post office had Native American patrons. My previous research has shown how the United States Postal Service, by policy, did not exclude patrons based on race, gender, or nationality. This wampum has led me to wonder if the cosmopolitanism of the USPS extends back to colonial postal practices.

2. The main purpose of my research this summer is to understand the impact of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) on international mail exchange in American Literature. While the majority of this information will be housed in the UPU Archive in Bern, Switzerland, I found an interesting effect of regularized international mail on the Royal Mail in Britain. Right around the time the UPU was established, Britain greatly increased the censorship of the mail. The new regulations targeted obscene and lewd materials. I was surprised by what I expected to be the most titillating box in the postal archive: the box containing lewd and obscene mail. Instead of finding nineteenth century pornography, I was leafing through political tracts and literature from Paris, South Africa, and India. The law that seemed to be targeting sexually explicit materials, was instead stifling revolutionary literature. It was this regulation that kept James Joyce’s Ulysses from being sent by mail.

I will continue scouring postal timetables, rate charts, and manuals in London and Bern in the hope of giving an account of the diverse and dizzying story of communication by mail.

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