BBC Radio 4

    The People's Post: The Penny Black


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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.

    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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