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21st-Century Mythologies - 14. The E-Reader

The People's Post: The Penny Black

Tuesday 13 December 2011, 14:50

Joby Waldman Joby Waldman Producer

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Editor's note: The People's Post: A History of the Post Office, is on at the moment on Radio 4 at 1.45pm weekdays and continues next week. You can hear the episode on the Penny Black online for the next six days and read Joby's previous post here - PM.

Penny Black stamp

Old Original Die (Penny Black). See more images from BPMA on Flickr

Last week I received an email from my German friend with whom I've maintained an exclusively paper correspondence for 15 years.

It actually came from his partner's email account via my wife. It felt a little weird, especially since - in my previous blog post - I'd held him up as an unwavering devotee of "snail mail". And it raised some questions - will sending emails change the stuff we discuss? Will he soon be informing me what he had for lunch? Bombarding me with information about his charity run, or business?

In 1840 the post office saw the single most important reform in its history: the introduction of the Penny Black, the world's first postage stamp.

For the first time anyone in the UK could send a letter to anyone else for one flat fee - a penny (about the cost of a mug of coffee). The brainchild of social reformer Rowland Hill, it was intended to help maintain family ties for a population cast asunder by the industrial revolution. But what really boosted mail volumes weren't the missives of ordinary letter writers, but big business. Before long, Victorian letterboxes were crammed with "circulars" advertising the latest consumer goods flooding on to the marketplace, things like:

Bromo-Phosph, The World's Greatest Tonic, Is a Natural Brain Food. Take it for nervous debility, Take it for the Tired Brain, Take it for General Weakness. Post Free from the Rudolph Drug Company, Reading.
The Domen Belt Corset should appeal to every woman who desires a graceful figure combined with a healthy and comfortable support. Domen Belts Company, 456 Strand, London
Keating's Insect Destroying Powder. Kills Bugs, Kills Fleas, Kills Moths, Kills Black Beetles. May be obtained from all Chemists or Free by Post, 14 and 33 stamps

When it took over the Parcel Post, the GPO offered a genuinely joined up service to enable the spread of mass consumerism. Thanks to the post office you could receive a circular through your door offering the latest fashions, send off the requisite number of stamps or a postal order and receive your new shoes within a week. For remote rural communities the world must have seemed a much smaller place.

The Penny Black also changed the way we do long distance relationships. A good example of this is the correspondence of Bob, a man servant and Jinny, a house keeper during the late 19th century. Over the course of a decade Bob sent no fewer than 60 letters to Jinnie revealing his hopes, desires and fears, though not always clearly:

My dear Jinnie,
Many thanks for your dear letter and also for information about the flannel. No love, I am not as big as I said it was only nonsense and you did not read my letter right; it should read I am getting bald not bold. If I put bold, it must have seemed very bombastic. No dear I am not bold enough however, I shall get on alright I dare say...
My Dear Jinnie,
...really my love, I couldn't understand your letter a bit, you didn't finish some of the sentences, so I shall keep that one until I see you...

Before long the post office came to symbolize much more than letters - it offered banking services for the poor and became a pillar of the community. The internet is rightly considered the defining innovation of our age. But in making the Peoples Post I've realized that almost everything the internet does today, the post office did first. Sending messages quickly and cheaply, fostering a wider sense of community, it helped disperse information, ideas and - yes - junk mail.

Joby Waldman is the producer of The People's Post

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    Comment number 1.

    Hi there, I was wondering whether, in line with this show, any one would be able to help me with a public appeal for info? Maybe someone reading this might know...

    In Spring Gardens post office in Manchester there is some artwork that (evidenced through a newspaper archive I found) has been there since the branch opened in 1969. No one knows anything about it. But as it's recent history then chances are the artist/s or someone close to them is out there and can help credit them.

    I do know that Manchester University are said to have gifted them to the PO, so it's may be that this is the work of a student rather than the other suggestions (such as William Mitchell or Mitzi Cunliffe). There are no official records held with the postal heritage or the university. Previous researchers have also hit a brick wall.

    I want to make sure out recent history isn't forgotten, and naming the artists or even getting some minor information about these post war murals would be a great thing to be able to do.

    If anyone can help broadcast or publish an appeal it would be fantastic.

    If you would like photos or further info then get in touch! [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    As a schoolgirl (1944) I was a temp postman that Christmas. Signed up as 2 years older than I was, with a fellow student to get the job. Sorted post (at Quex Rd ? Kilburn office), highter to lowter or lowter to highter (house numbers for easier delivery), tied bundles of envelopes with string and a knot that would allow you to tighten the bundle as it shrunk. Wartime, had one pair of shoes, don't remember ever having wellingtons. Delivered letters, packets, registered stuff, my senior postman didn't take tips, suggested they give them to me (some did, doubtfully). Lots of snow, delivered on Christmas Day morning, fell asleep on sofa after a (rare) baked pork joint meal, with stuffing, that day, exhausted. Dad had posted the 15 year old girl he'd met in WW I some of the embroidered cards mentioned,to Emma in Torquay, from France. Couldn't marry her for years after his return - general unemployment!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Can anyone tell me about the music in this wonderful series-the " open the door and let me in" song. I would love to download it-is it possible?


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