A Story from Switzerland

Tragically, the Universal Postal Union archive is closed on the weekends so I spent my first few days in Switzerland taking in the beauty of the Alps. I hiked, fed carrots to marmots, and ate fondue with the loveliest of people instead of spending three consecutive days in fluorescence, straining my eyes at the scrawled handwriting of a nineteenth century tri-lingual Frenchman. Needless to say, this weekend was a welcome respite from archival research. During my first days in Switzerland, I had the pleasure and privilege of being hosted by Manuela–a friend of a Fordham professor–and her family. To be more precise, Manuela is the childhood penpal of my professor. The two were brought together across national borders (Switzerland to Canada) by the postal service and have been exchanging stories and building an intimate friendship ever since. Even though this leg of my trip was not research-driven, it does provide a lovely anecdote of how the international post can bring people together.

Rather than authoring this update with my usual postal service tunnel vision, I want to share a good story from my first weekend in Switzerland. A few tram rides and a short hike through a flock of mountain sheep (with bells!) led us to the vista of the Aletsch Glacier in Bettmeralp. At 46 square miles, the Aletsch Glacier is the largest glacier in the Alps and, to put it simply, is one of the most magnificent spaces I’ve ever seen. With the aura of both mountain and desert, the glacier extends beyond sight with tundric majesty. We were lucky enough to be at the vista when there were very few people around, which meant a quiet that wasn’t exactly so. In the quiet of little human bustle, beneath the sound of the wind, I could hear the glacier. I could hear the underground streams and the way they would moan and echo through glacial crevices. The whole experience was chilling. Certainly, the Aletsch Glacier is endowed with a mythic quality.

According to Manuela’s mother, in some folktales the Aletsch Glacier is a space of purification where poor, sinful souls expiate their sins. During my trip I got to hear one of the folktales of the glacier from Switzerland’s rich culture of storytelling. Inside the glacier museum, I heard the story of Schmidja, a pious old woman who lived in a hut by the glacier (thanks to a video with English subtitles and various additions from Manuela’s mother).

In the tale, Schmidja prays for the lost souls ailing in the glacier. She can hear their cries each night while she is spinning wool at her wheel in her warm hut. Despite her continual prayer, the souls still moan for relief from the freezing glacier. One night, attracted to the candlelight in her window, the souls’ cries grew louder and became more oppressive. Whether from compassion or fear, Schmidja cracked open her window and said “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The souls’ cries subsided as they warmed themselves through the night and left with the rising of the morning sun.

This became routine. Shmidja would spin at her wheel until five o’clock every night, then she would make her way to the window, open it a crack and say “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The poor souls began to expect the respite of Schmidja’s warm fire and she always allowed them into her home.

One night, Schmidja became lost to time in her spinning. It was well past five o’clock and she kept at her work. She was deaf to the cries of the souls until they rose to a pitch of desperate fury. Immediately knowing her lapse, Schmidja ran to the window and threw it open, shouting “come in! Come in!” The souls poured into her hut, crowding every inch of space. Howling with anger and cold, the poor souls forced Schmidja to her wheel. They were angry at Schmidja’s oversight and were determined to make her remember their need for warmth above all else. Because she did not utter her usual request for the souls not to hurt her, they could punish the old woman. The souls put Schmidja to work at her wheel, spinning and spinning all through the night. With no rest, she spun and the souls howled. When the poor souls left in the morning, Schmidja could barely move her hands from all the work. The souls’ punishment was effective, indeed: Schmidja never forgot to allow them in at five o’clock and always upon the condition of not hurting her.

Not too many years after Schmidja’s harrowing night of spinning, she passed away in her warm hut. The poor souls, remembering the old woman’s kindness and hospitality, lined up like candles across the glacier to meet their friend. Together, the souls and dear Schmidja, glowing like candles, moved across the glacier into the afterlife.

I was deeply touched by the hospitality of my Swiss hosts and I am incredibly grateful that they shared this story–and many new ones–with me.

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.


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.

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.