In The Victorian Internet (1998), Tom Standage connects the Internet to its Victorian ancestor, the telegraph, patented in 1837 but not commercially available to the public until midcentury (c. 1850). Standage argues that subsequent communication technologies including the telephone in 1876 and, more recently, the Fax machine and the Internet have built upon the foundation of the telegraph, the “mother of all networks” (1). This epithet more aptly applies to an even earlier Victorian information technology that reduced the size of the world and affected business, economics, politics, and daily life — the Penny Post of 1840. The Penny Post mandated a uniform, affordable rate for postage: a letter weighing up to  ounce could travel anywhere in the UK for only a penny. A point of origin for computer-mediated communication (CMC), the Penny Post — empowered by Ralph Allen’s organized system of cross posts (1720), John Palmer’s mail coaches (1784), and nationwide railway service (c. 1847) — initiated the first communications “network.”

In the nineteenth century, letter writing was the only way to communicate with those living at a distance. However, prior to 1840, the post was expensive. Postal charges grew high in England due to the inflationary pressure of the Napoleonic Wars. Different from the way mail operates today, the burden of payment fell to the receiver, not the sender; prepayment was a social slur on the recipient. One had to be financially solvent to receive a letter. If the recipient could not afford to pay for a letter, it was returned to sender. Thus, leaving home often meant losing touch with family and friends.

Examples of letter-writing before the Victorian revolution — left to right: (a) Crossed text; (b) a wax seal; (c) A letter cover — where one put the addres before envelopes. [Click on the left and right thumbnails for larger images.]

The Victorians rallied for and welcomed the Penny Post as a means to improve economics, morality, science, employment, and education. In 1837, postal reformer Rowland Hill, whom Queen Victoria knighted in 1860 for his reform efforts, published Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. In this influential postal reform pamphlet, Hill offers compelling reasons why the British believed they needed postal reform. Prior to reform, postal evasion and scams were widespread because, for the working class, a letter could cost more than a day’s wage. In the 1830s, charges were notoriously inconsistent since the Post Office determined single, double, or triple rates according to the number of miles a letter traversed to get to its destination and the number of sheets of paper (and enclosures) a writer used. A letter might not necessarily travel the most direct or economical route. In addition, postal workers used “candling” — an inexact method of holding a letter up to the light — to assess the number of letter sheets or enclosures. Any reader of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) knows that to save costs, cross writing was common — a writer turned his or her letter horizontally and “crossed” (or wrote over) the original text at a right angle rather than use an additional sheet of paper. Folded letters with a wax seal may look quaint, but like cross writing, this was also a pre-1840s cost cutting measure since that same missive, posted in an envelope, would receive double charge.

One of the first things Queen Victoria did when she came to the throne in 1837 was to appoint a Select Committee on Postage, chaired by Robert Wallace MP and charged to look into the condition of the post with a view towards postal rate reduction. Victoria, on August 17, 1839, gave royal assent to the Postage Duties Bill and, in 1840, ushered in Uniform Penny Postage and the enormously popular adhesive postage stamp, prepaid by the sender (an unpaid letter cost the recipient 2 pence to encourage prepayment). The Penny Post abolished the much-abused system of franking — postmarks granting Members of Parliament and the Queen free carriage of mail — and transformed the mail from an expensive tax for revenue to a civic service affordable to all social classes.

Left: A Mulready — Rowland Hill's prepaid stationery. Middle: The Perkins D c.ylinder Printing Press on which the first stamps were produced Right: The Penny Black (also known as “Queen’s Head,&rdquo) — the first U. K. postage stamp. [Click on thumbnails for larger images]

Postal reformer Rowland Hill invented prepaid stationery (called Mulreadies) and the postage stamp, which he describes in Post Office Reform as “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” The first ever postage stamp, called the Penny Black and dubbed a “Queen’s Head,” features the bust of young Queen Victoria. The stamp and prepayment grew in popularity and quickly became a model for other nations including the United States, which issued its first postage stamps in 1847. The Penny Post also stimulated industry in the rapidly growing consumer culture of Victorian Britain. A bewildering array of high-end and mass-produced postal products — stamp boxes, letter holders, paper clips, writing desks, letter writing manuals — were among the material objects displayed as emissaries of progress at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Although “snail mail” may seem old fashioned and outdated in the twenty-first century, the Penny Post was a revolutionary measure. On January 10, 1840, cheap, uniform postage extended across England. The Penny Post allowed Victorians to transcend geographical boundaries. Suddenly, it became possible to stay connected with friends and family despite relocation, emigration, and travel. More remarkably, due to prepayment, Victorians could communicate and conduct business directly with those outside of their circle of acquaintance. As I argue in Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2009), the Penny Post in Victorian England was the forerunner of current information technologies, establishing a postal “network” for sending letters of business, advertising, condolence, congratulations, and enormously popular valentines. Unfortunately — but not surprisingly — the Penny Post also stimulated frauds and blackmail and gave rise to junk mail, problems that remain with us today.

References

Golden, Catherine J. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998.


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Last modified 22 July 2010