The joys of correspondence

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In response to the discussion of "Realistic limitations" on telephone conversation, Anne Cutler sent in a link to her 1989 New Scientist article "The new Victorians":

"My dear Hooker," wrote Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker on 6 March 1844, "I will not lose a post in guarding you against what I am afraid is … labour in vain." This urgent warning went by post, because Darwin had no option: he had no telephone. What the Victorians did have, however, was a pretty efficient postal service, and they made good use of it. Look at the fat volumes of Darwin's correspondence. Hooker was only one of many fellow scientists with whom Darwin exchanged letters at a rate that seems to us prodigious. Victorian scientists bombarded one another with ideas, results and opinions, and all by mail.

By comparison, we write few such letters. But now, quietly, a new age of scientific correspondence is opening, and what has brought it about is a new kind of mail: electronic mail.

Of course, many younger people now see email as something that their parent do — and view writing and sending an actual paper letter as something as foreign to their experience as composing and performing operatic recitativo. Though even undergraduates do participate in research-oriented email exchanges these days, perhaps as a concession to elderly collaborators.

 

 



22 Comments

  1. Garrett Wollman said,

    June 17, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

    In Darwin's day, central London had twelve postal delivers a day, and many other parts of the metropolis had six — although Darwin didn't live in London and would not have had nearly so frequent service. Still, it was not at all unusual for Victorians to send letters to each other and be reasonably confident of a reply the same day.

  2. Chris said,

    June 17, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

    When I was in university in the mid-1990s, I tried to correspond with people via typewriter-written letters, mostly to same-age friends. Nobody would respond, except William F. Buckley, Jr. (who was not a same-age friend).

  3. Kate Bunting said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 2:44 am

    There's the incident in 'Howard's End' where Helen's letter mentioning her brief romance with Paul, posted late one evening, reaches her family in London the next morning. According to an annotated edition I once read, this would not actually have been possible, but presumably in Forster's day it didn't seem wildly implausible.

  4. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 4:38 am

    I recently found a letter I had looked for years ago. A few books say President John Adams had complimented Philadelphia by calling it the pineal gland of America. Descartes had called the pineal the seat of the soul. Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on 14 March, 1814: "….But you know Philadelphia is the heart, the sensorium, the pineal gland of the United States…." In context, it's plain that he was being sarcastic.

    [(myl) For the full (and weird) context, see here.]

  5. bks said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 7:37 am

    By the 1880's the telegraph was well enough established that Watson was able to easily communicate with Holmes from London to the European continent, in A.C. Doyle's stories.

  6. Michele Sharik said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    Garret wrote:
    "In Darwin's day, central London had twelve postal delivers a day, and many other parts of the metropolis had six …. it was not at all unusual for Victorians to send letters to each other and be reasonably confident of a reply the same day."

    That was shocking to me when I first started reading old Brit books (such as the Lord Peter Wimsey series) and they referenced putting a letter into the "morning post" and receiving a reply via the "evening post".

  7. Rube said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    I read something one time (God, how many of my stories start like that), that said it was not at all unreasonable for a Victorian housewife in the London suburbs to write to her husband in the City asking him what we would like for supper, and to get a replay in time to do her marketing.

  8. Andy Averill said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

    I've been reading a biography of William James which mentions that Cambridge, MA had four mail deliveries a day in the 1880's. Who needs texting?

  9. peterb said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

    @bks:

    Australia was connected to London by telegraph in October 1872.

  10. Kaleberg said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 6:59 pm

    The US had twice daily mail delivery in the 1950s and into the 1960s. I vaguely remember it as something in Manhattan, not Queens, but I was just a child then. A lot of people didn't have telephones back then. They were expensive, and, even so, Ma Bell was behind in wiring to meet the post war boom demand.

    Modern historians are going to look at emails as the modern replacement. People who actually do things use email, even today.

  11. Viseguy said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

    So, it turns out that W.C. Fields was honoring a venerable tradition of Philly-bashing ("Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed").

    This native New Yorker loves Philly. Some good eating, and — to raise a right node — great walking, there.

  12. Stephen said,

    June 19, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    On multiple postal deliveries. My mother was born in 1914 and when she was working as a waitress in central London (so c. 20yo & early 1930s) she would get sometimes get lunchtime tips in the form of theatre or show tickets for that night.

    She would send a penny* (or half-penny) postcard home to her mother to say that she would not be that evening.

    * Well pre-decimalisation. Then a penny was 1/240 of a pound sterling.

  13. Rebecca said,

    June 19, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

    Bike couriers were the longer lasting cousins of the quick turn-around post. Not being a city dweller, I'm wondering if they have finally started to decline, too, now that electronic transfer of larger documents and e-signatures are more easily accomplished.

  14. Barry Cusack said,

    June 19, 2018 @ 4:22 pm

    Rube
    In the Select Letters of Oscar Wilde (Ed R. Hart-Davis, 1978) there is at least one letter which indicates that Wilde wrote a letter in the morning and received a reply before lunch the same day. This would have been, obviously, in the 1870's or 80's.

  15. DaveK said,

    June 19, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

    Remember the end of "A Christmas Carol" where Scrooge yells out the window at a passing boy and tells him to go to the butcher and order a turkey for Bob Cratchit?
    That was probably the ultimate forerunner of the bike courier—some kid with a few minutes of free time

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    June 20, 2018 @ 7:06 pm

    To start with the original subject, I can not believe that there ever was a time when men of learning generally did not correspond using whatever means were available. What does seem a little peculiar to me is that many people from the earlier modern age were so diligent about saving all their letters received (and maybe those sent, if possible) and even ensuring that they be accessible to posterity. That seems to have gone out of fashion some time ago, and somehow I doubt that most scholarly e-mails today will ever be read by anyone except the original correspondents.

    To the other matter: of course it's always been possible to procure delivery with all possible speed to those needing it. What is surprising about those old mail schedules is that that facility was made available to all without unusual arrangement or expense. It may deserve mention that quick delivery was surely confined to the same urban area – sending mail long distances could not have been any faster than it is today.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  17. Kate Bunting said,

    June 21, 2018 @ 3:59 am

    "That was probably the ultimate forerunner of the bike courier—some kid with a few minutes of free time."

    In another Dickens story, 'The Chimes', the protagonist is a poor 'ticket-porter', a freelance messenger operating in the business districts of London.

  18. Doug said,

    June 21, 2018 @ 7:26 am

    Rebecca said:
    "Bike couriers were the longer lasting cousins of the quick turn-around post. Not being a city dweller, I'm wondering if they have finally started to decline, too, now that electronic transfer of larger documents and e-signatures are more easily accomplished."

    Back in 1991, the New York Times had an article "Fax displacing Manhattan Bike Couriers":
    https://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/19/world/fax-displacing-manhattan-bike-couriers.html

    But the wikipedia article on bicycle messengers indicates the business is not entirely dead.

  19. Philip Anderson said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 7:37 am

    Bike couriers may not be delivering paperwork any more, but in London at least they are delivering food everywhere, and also urgent medical supplies.

  20. mg said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    My now-20-something son once IM'd me when he was in college because he had to send something by snail mail and needed me to tell him how to do it!

  21. Ray said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

    I like how our icons for email are still a graphic of an envelope, though.

  22. Roger Lustig said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

    1970, Switzerland: you could tell it was Sunday when the postman came around once instead of twice.

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