I’ve been frustrated, recently, while trying to write a certain section of the current dis. chapter.  I’m going to try to talk through some of my thoughts here.

I’m writing about the circumstances surrounding the development of periodical publication in 18th C. England, and I’m devoting a section to the postal system.  The “post” referred to in “postal system” usually referred to fresh horses that were made available (in the most basic sense they were “posted,” as in attached to a hitching post in a given location) at intervals along a given route.  The routes were often temporary, depending on the level of need at a given time.  Charles I made his Royal mail system available to the “public” in 1635 (how many people could actually afford to send letters through it is certainly questionable), but the system of sending letters to people in other towns, counties, or countries was not a terribly comprehensive or voluminous endeavor.  As far as I can tell, the postal system did not change terribly much between the Civil War era and the mid- to late-eighteenth century, except for one specific innovation.  More after the break…

That new concept was the Penny Post, a system that sprang up in London in 1680, invented by a man named William Docwra.  Whereas the standard postal system at the time had an established (you might say calcified) method of shipping letters out of London along a number of major roads, the Penny Post was devoted to the delivery of mail to various different neighbourhoods of London, a local (and one might say “networked”) system of delivery.  There were hundreds of “drop off” points, and several sorting stations through which letters were circulated.  The distribution of letters was much less centralized and linear, and resulted in speedy delivery from almost any point in the city to any other.  The Penny Post was incredibly successful, so it’s surprising that it took the British government a whole two years to take it over.

Mark Nunes writes about the Penny Post in chapter 3 of his book Cyberspaces of Everyday Life, a book basically devoted to using Lefebvre’s theories of spacial analysis to understand the concept of “cyberspace.”  Nunes compares the Penny Post to email, suggesting that the Docwra’s “invention” was an innovation on the standard Post in the same way that email was an innovation on “snail mail.”  That argument doesn’t interest me very much (besides being entirely unverifiable, which is not always a problem, I can’t see how that is really a useful claim to make), but Nunes’ treatment of the Penny Post will likely be something I deal with in this chapter.

I know that the postal system was an important part of the formation of the periodical: the sheer number of newspapers that have some form of the word “post” in their names indicates that.  I’m not sure if I can prove any increased circulation of periodicals as a result of the Penny Post, but I don’t think that has to be my goal.  What I do want to show, though, is that the Penny Post and the idea of “coffeehouse talk” were sufficient to create an understanding of communication that was systemized in a certain way; communication that was reliable, quick, and periodic.  It was obviously not universally accessible, and it was certainly not inherently democratizing, but it was a vision of progress in the technology of communicating.

I have to do a little more reading, and get clear on my examples of ways the postal system pops up in periodical discourse, but I’m thinking that this musing of mine has led to me this conclusion: the phenomena I am discussing in this chapter could almost all be called “inventions that weren’t” or something like that, some kind of indication that the coffeehouse, the penny post, the periodical itself were not radically distinct, either technologically or materially, from previous incarnations: instead, they were new ideas, new ways of approaching/conceiving of established situations.

I have a lot of writing left to do, but I’m pretty excited about this stuff now…