October 29th, 2011

You think the postal service is bad now?

You should have seen it around 1815:

To send a letter from the United States to Britain, you addressed it by domestic U.S. Mail to a shipping house on the coast, enclosing money to cover ocean travel and inland postage in Europe. The captain of the transatlantic ship was the real carrier, and passengers sometimes undercut him by agreeing to take letters at 25 to 50 cents apiece. But the total cost of a letter from the New World was never less than a day’s wages, or two days’ wages in the other direction. Time taken was rarely less than two months, even if the letter was an important official dispatch carried by fast frigate. In 1817 the new president, James Monroe, wrote to John Quincy Adams in London, summoning him to be Secretary of State, on 6 March; it reached Adams only on 16 April, the fastest of four identical letters sent by different routes.

13 Responses to “You think the postal service is bad now?”

  1. holmes Says:

    And that was before guaranteed pensions for federal and quasi-federal employees too. The Dark Ages, as I like to call them.

  2. Sgt. Mom Says:

    It wasn’t all that much better twenty or so years later — it took easily six month for a letter to get from the West Coast to an addressee in the United States. Curiously, one of the projects I am working on now involves transcribing a great mass of letters from the mid-19th century, written by the the family members of a prominent industrialist. While traveling in Europe, they make mention of completing letters in time to make the weekly steamer (presumably the mail steamer) and from the American south-west — where the writer did not entirely trust the mails, which came by stage-coach. All of them, though — were just thrilled to bits with the telegraph.
    You know what is the most amazing thing about the 19th century (and this may be the reason I am driven to write about it in such detail) is that conditions changed so fast, for ordinary people. In the early part of the 1800s, things were pretty much like they had been in the 1700s and earlier. Goods traveled by horse-drawn wagon, by barge, or by sailing ship. People lived by candle light, cooked their food over a fire, made most of their neccesities themselves or procured them locally. And at the end of the 1800s? Steam engines, factories, electric lights, mass-manufacturing, instant communication by telegraph, antiseptic surgery, refrigeration (of a sort) powered flight … and it all happened in the span of a human lifetime!

  3. rickl Says:

    Last year I ordered an out-of-print book online via Abebooks from a bookseller in England. I received an e-mail confirmation of my order and payment from the bookseller.

    The book took over two months to reach me. It was in perfect condition when I got it. No idea why it took so long. It must have been sent aboard the last surviving sailing ship on the North Atlantic route.

  4. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    rickl,no, you are on the receiving end of a new anti-terror policy. I purchase items from Europe regularly and sometimes it’s 5 days, sometimes it’s 60.

  5. david foster Says:

    As Sgt Mom says, the telegraph had a huge impact. One journalist marveled “This extraordinary discovery leaves…no elsewhere…it is all HERE.”

    The railroad, too, had a great effect on the perception of space and time. Heinrich Heine, living in Paris in 1843, wrote “I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.”

  6. expat Says:

    I read Bill Bryson’s At Home a few weeks ago. It is full of similar stories. It’s a fun (mostly), easy read.

  7. Lee Merrick Says:

    It’s not that the USPS is bad, it’s irrelevant. The only “mail” we receive is junk with an occasionnal medical bill. Everything that is important is online. The fact that we have Saturday delivery is ridiculous. It should be cut back to twice-weekly.

  8. Motorcyclist Says:

    I have no doubt that postal service will revert to the mean over the next few years. Government run agencies are all going to become snarling, inefficient, predatory version of their current selves.

    Still, you have to admit that postal workers still provide entertaining news! How about the one that was caught on camera, defecating in a postal customers’ front yard? Going postal is almost a cultural tradition now!

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    Motorcyclist: so much of a cultural tradition that there’s this.

  10. blert Says:

    It didn’t get solved until packet shipping circa 1853…

    Packet ships left on a set date full or not. They got the nic because their definite departure date hoovered up ALL of the packet/ letter business.

    They were the original Fed Ex. And yes, they used steam & sail.

  11. Terry Hoover Says:

    Sgt. Mom speaks of change in the 19th century, and how fast is was and the effect it had on peoples’ lives. In the 20th century my grandmother used to go to school in a buggy behind a horse. She lived long enough to sit in her own living room and watch men walking on the moon. Her husband, my grand father, might have had similar experiences, but the horses he knew as a child were draught animals…his family couldn’t afford the luxury of taking a buggy to school.

  12. EssEm Says:

    I live in San Francisco. Left my cell phone at a local restaurant. When I got home, I found an email from my sister in New York City, telling me she’d had a phone call from my mother on Eastern Long Island, that a woman with an Australian accent had found my phone in the restaurant and called to say she was leaving it with the owner. I drove back and picked it up…

  13. texexec Says:

    Things really have changed a LOT with communications. And that has affected many things.

    I remember having to write my broker (in NYC) letters from Aruba (where I was performing my Navy duty), telling him which stocks to buy. The letters often arrived at his desk after a couple of weeks.

    Nowadays, I do that with a couple of clicks of my mouse…and sometimes hold the position for 30 seconds or less. And I can do that from almost anywhere in the world.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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