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Thursday 13 April 2017

Review: Jay Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 - 1800

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Jay Caplan is a Professor of French at Amherst College in the USA with a special interest in eighteenth century literary history. Struck by the constant references to the workings of the post in French writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, he became interested in the development and organisation of the postal service itself and this short book is the result. It is clearly written, lively and accessible to a non-specialist reader though the text does sometimes lose the battle with the footnotes; the solution is to ignore the footnotes.

Except in Venice, it is only from the sixteenth century on that “the public” began to get access to what previously had been the private courier and messenger services of kings and princes. Opening up and expanding the post proved a significant source of revenue for those kings and princes and, in addition, made it possible to spy on those who made use of the expanded postal services. The development of the post goes hand in hand with the development of secret offices dedicated to opening people’s letters, especially the letters of dissidents like Voltaire and Rousseau. Caplan devotes a chapter to the “Black Cabinets” which did the work of opening and reading letters and tries to assemble what is known about how (specifically in France) they worked. Many aspects of their operations remain unclear.

He focusses on the posts of Thurn and Taxis, France and Great Britain, noting in passing in the case of the latter how Queen Elizabeth the First opted to discourage the development of communication among her subjects, opposing herself to better roads and posts. He looks at how the posts were managed, how they were supervised, how work was divided between those who accepted and delivered letters and those who transported them from post to post – the horse relays which allowed the mails to speed along at a few kilometers per hour. He notes that it was the posts between big cities across the continent of Europe which developed first, the city and town posts for local correspondence - things like la petite poste in Paris and Dockwra in London - coming later. Governments were generally keen to preserve postal monopolies, even if they sold leases to operate services to “farmers”.

Caplan points out several features of the dominant practice of requiring the recipient to pay for a letter, not the sender. For example, it gave an incentive to these for-profit postal services to actually deliver the mail because only then did they get paid. I had never thought of that before! But for someone like Voltaire or Rousseau, receiving sackfuls of fan mail, the fact that the recipient paid for the fan mail was a financial disaster and both Voltaire and Rousseau ended up posting public notices that they would only accept mail from correspondents know to them. It didn’t solve the problem.

Caplan does not mention the interesting practice which allowed poor servant girls or apprentice boys living far from home to  send empty letters to their parents who would then refuse to pay for the letter, but would know from the fact of it being sent that their children were at least alive.

The postal service and letter writing develop in symbiotic relationship and, at first, being able to write to someone a long way away was as novel as was being able to telephone them or Skype them was at later dates. Caplan quotes very interesting passages from Madame de Sevigné which indicate how the development of a frequent and reliable letter service altered daily life, habits and expectations so that something like impatience became most clearly illustrated by the feeling one had waiting for a letter. An etiquette to letter-writing developed, even written out in Handbooks of how to do it, and covered such things as when to use a single sheet (what we now call entire letters) for both correspondence and address, and when to wrap the letter sheet in a separate sheet, the enveloppe.

Conventions developed about folding the paper and tucking in flaps. It was not until the 19th century that the technology for machine folding envelopes was perfected. Sealing was also an important matter and there was some obvious etiquette, like black seals for mourning letters. Interestingly, the spies who opened letters had to deal with the problem of repairing the broken wax seal and it occurred to me reading Caplan that we probably don’t look out for censor-repaired or replaced wax seals in the same way as we look out for other signs of later perlustration.

This is a book which will have considerable interest for collectors of pre-philatelic letters. Unfortunately, the 210 page paperback is priced at £60

J.Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 – 1800. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation 2016) ISSN 0435-2866

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