In today's excerpt - the U.S. Post Office and Valentine's Day cards:
"It can take people a while to grasp the implications of a new communications system. When Thomas Edison invented his improved telephone receiver in 1877, he thought it would become a medium for broadcasting concerts and plays to remote auditoriums. For twenty-five years after radio was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, people chiefly regarded it as a means of ship-to-shore communication.
"Then there's the US Postal System. For the first half century after its founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. Not that you couldn't send letters, too, but the rates were much higher than for periodicals. In 1840, sending a letter from Boston to Richmond cost 25 cents a sheet, at a time when the average laborer made 75 cents a day. Postal inspectors were always on the alert for people who sent each other newspapers at the cheaper rate and added coded personal messages by putting pin pricks in certain letters.
"That all changed in 1845, when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence and set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in a fascinating new book called The Postal Age.
"One dramatic effect of the cheaper postage was to allow Americans to keep in touch with one another in what was becoming the most mobile society on earth. But as Henkin recounts, the post was used for other purposes. Businesses made mass mailings of circulars, and swindlers sent out letters promoting get- rich-quick schemes. People sent each other portraits of themselves made with the recently invented daguerreotype process. They sent seeds and sprigs to distant friends and family eager for the smells of home. And, oh yes, they also sent valentines.
"St. Valentine's Day was an ancient European holiday. Back in England, people drew lots to divine their future mates and exchanged love poems and intricately folded pieces of paper called 'puzzle purses,' the ancestors of the fortune-telling cootie-catchers that children still make today. But before the 1840s, puritan Americans almost completely disregarded the holiday, like the other saints' days of the Old World.
"The drop in postal rates set off what contemporaries described as 'Valentine mania.' By the late 1850s, Americans were buying 3 million ready-made valentines every year, paying anything from a penny to several hundred dollars for elaborate affairs adorned with gold rings or precious stones. People sent cards to numerous objects of their affection, often taking advantage of the possibilities for anonymity that the mail provided.
"That was alarming to moralists who complained that the postal system in general promoted promiscuity, illicit assignations, and the distribution of pornography - and actually, they weren't entirely wrong about any of that. But fully half of the valentine traffic consisted of comic or insulting cards that people sent anonymously to annoying neighbors or unpopular schoolmasters. By the time the craze tapered off a few decades later, people were sending each other cards for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as the greeting card became a fixture of American life."
Geoffrey Nunberg, The Years of Talking Dangerously, Public Affairs, Copyright 2009 by Geoffrey Nunberg, pp. 141-143