Postal Souvenirs

The souvenir shop, regardless of city, is a strange, strange place. Tourist-infested streets are lined with stores lined with shelves lined with kitschy memorabilia. People from elsewhere buy little tokens to mark their away-from-home experiences with something distinct. In New York City, you can buy matchbox yellow cabs, Statue of Liberty lighters, and t-shirts with the city skyline in silhouette. These items reflect what is unique about a city (and, of course, global consumerism and strange cultural simulacra). Really, what better way is there to remember your stroll in Central Park than a full scale model with apples for street lamps? During my London ramblings, I stopped into a few souvenir shops (please don’t tell anyone from Williamsburg!) with the hope of finding something to memorialize my experience here. As to be expected, I found union jack panties, some leftover Olympic trinkets, creepy paper masks of notable Brits, and Royal Baby banners–full price for blues, discount for pinks. What I didn’t expect to find, however, were Royal Mail street post boxes. There were red mail box pencil sharpeners, banks, salt and pepper shakers, and–my personal favorite–a full tea set.

Street letter boxes are far from unique to London. In the United States, we have navy blue, R2D2-like fixtures on many street corners. In Switzerland, you’ll frequently find slim, bright yellow post boxes. Street post boxes are ubiquitous. They offer patrons an increased degree of anonymity in access to the post, no matter the country. Just imagine the secrets sent through the nineteenth century post–abolitionist tracts, correspondence between suffragettes, claims to land in the West. By the middle of the century, these documents and their senders were no longer subject to the gaze of the local postmaster. Anyone could surreptitiously slip a stamped note into one of these blue, red, or yellow boxes.

Despite the nearly universal presence of street letter boxes, the nature of international travel lets us see the world through new eyes. As a tireless optimist, this means that I can experience the most mundane detail of a place as an object of wonder. Even though I did not buy the souvenir Royal Mail tea set, my touristy disorientation to London allows me to see the intricate and ever-present nature of the post. Thanks to changes in nineteenth century postal systems (in both the US an the UK), the post office is boringly commonplace. I hope to embrace this postal disorientation as I continue my research in London, Bern, and at home. By doing so, I hope to gain insight into how widespread implementation of the street letter box as evidenced in literature from the period shaped an individual’s experience of time, space, and community at home and abroad.

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