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Posting It

The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing

Catherine J. Golden

Publication Year: 2009

Although "snail mail" may seem old fashioned and outdated in the twenty-first century, Catherine Golden argues that the creation of the Penny Post in Victorian England was just as revolutionary in its time as e-mail and text messages are today.

Until Queen Victoria instituted the Postal Reform Act of 1839, mail was a luxury affordable only by the rich. Allowing anyone, from any social class, to send a letter anywhere in the country for only a penny had multiple and profound cultural impacts.

Golden demonstrates how cheap postage--which was quickly adopted in other countries--led to a postal "network" that can be viewed as a forerunner of computer-mediated communications. Indeed, the revolution in letter writing of the nineteenth century led to blackmail, frauds, unsolicited mass mailings, and junk mail--problems that remain with us today.

Published by: University Press of Florida


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvii

Even though I live in an electronic age and have come to rely on computer-mediated communication, I have a confession to make. I prefer to write and receive traditional, old-fashioned, stamped letters. I am a fan of what enthusiasts of new technology call “snail mail”—a derogatory term that highlights...

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pp. 1-39

In August 2005, a Sunderland UK legal firm, Gordon Brown Associates, received a surprise in the post: a letter the firm had sent in 1997 by recorded delivery to a business partner of a deceased client appeared in a routine mail delivery. Fortunately, the letter, which Royal Mail had simply marked “not...

Part 1. Reforms

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p. 41

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1. Why the Victorians Needed a Revolution in Letter Writing

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pp. 43-82

In 1803, receiving a letter was not an everyday occurrence for middle- and working-class English families, nor was it a welcomed event. Postage was high. Prepayment, often considered an indirect social slur on the recipient, was possible but uncommon. Typically, postage was due when the recipient collected a...

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2. Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Mulreadies, Caricatures, and the Penny Black

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pp. 83-112

On January 10, 1840, post offices were bustling all across England. “‘Penny Postage extended to the whole kingdom this day,’” notes a triumphant Rowland Hill in his journal on that historic date (Hill and Hill 1: 390). The number of stamped letters posted on January 10, 1840, was 112,000. This figure...

Part 2. Outcomes

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p. 113

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3. “Why Is a Raven . . . ?”: The Rise of Postal Products from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Vanity Fair (1848) to the Pages of the Great Exhibition Catalogue (1851)

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pp. 115-152

Two landmarks frame postal reform in nineteenth-century Britain in part 1 of Posting It: on January 10, 1840, cheap, affordable mail extended across England; in May, 1860, George Elgar Hicks exhibited The General Post Office, One Minute to Six at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, commemorating...

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4. Unwanted Missives and the Spread of Vice: “Curious Things,” Slander, and Blackmail from Household Words to the Fiction of George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope

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pp. 153-192

Postal propaganda aligned high postage with vice and corruption and the Penny Post with goodness and righteousness. Reformist stories highlight families torn asunder, taxed too heavily to communicate, and poor folk scrambling to find necessary funds to accept a death notice, only to learn that in the meantime the...

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5. Benefits and Blessings: Letters Home, Friendship, Death Notices, Courtship, and Valentines by Penny Post

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pp. 193-234

Letter writing soared following postal reform: an estimated 337,500,000 letters passed through the United Kingdom in 1849, nine years after the Penny Post came into effect and six years after Martineau retrospectively blessed the Penny Post for “restoration of access to home . . . for all.” Writing in...

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Conclusion: Looking Forward from the Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing to Information Technologies Today

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pp. 235-256

Twenty years after Uniform Penny Postage, George Elgar Hicks exhibited a scene from contemporary life at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that pictorially anticipated a claim William Lewins made four years later in Her Majesty’s Mails (1864): “the Post-office is an institution capable of infinite...


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pp. 257-280


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pp. 281-290


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pp. 291-299

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813045788
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813033792
Print-ISBN-10: 0813033799

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 26 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 801847189
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Posting It

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Communication and technology -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Postal service -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Written communication -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Letter writing -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Literature and society -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Material culture -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Great Britain -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Great Britain -- Civilization -- 19th century.
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