“The post-office is a wonderful establishment!”said she—”The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!” Emma, Chapter 16, Volume II.
Jane Fairfax has reasons to be grateful to the post-office (as we readers and Emma and company of Highbury would soon learn by the end of Emma.) Letters, the sending and receiving and dissecting and deciphering, feature prominently in all of Jane Austen’s novels. Plus, it is through reading Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra that we modern readers get an intimate glimpse of the woman behind the author.
Jane Austen and her characters make it seem so simple and easy…this matter of writing and sending and receiving a letter. But is it?
Let’s pretend, like Jane Erstwhile in the movie Austenland, to be transported back in time to the Regency period and you are without cellphone, text, skype, vine, snapchat, twitter, facebook and all that. Exactly how would you write and post a letter to someone? Better yet, let’s say you end up in a village like Fullerton (Wiltshire) where Catherine Moreland lived, and you want to write to your own Henry Tilney in Woodston (Glouceshire). What would you need and what would you have to do?
Paper. You would use a paper that was handmade, with recycled fibers from rags (hemp, linen, or cotton), and thus expensive. (Wood pulp and the mass production of paper didn’t come about until after 1840′s). You could also splurge and use ‘Vellum,’ a high quality paper or parchment made from calf skin or other mammals. (Obviously more durable, and the reason why we still have documents from centuries ago).
Quill. For everyday, common-use, you take a goose feather from a stack of moulted primary feathers (preferable from the left wing if you’re right-handed, and right wing for left-handers). Fortunately, your family keeps a few geese for making quills. For fancy large lettering, you’d purchase the more expensive swan feathers. For a variety of other writings, you could use quills from ravens, crows, or turkeys.
You prepare the quill by first stripping the barbs, leaving a few decorative barbs at the top (not the fully plumped Hollywood version). You’ll need to temper or cure it in either hot ash or sand to remove the oil and the decaying, membranous sheath around the shaft. This process makes the quill more brittle and easier to use. You’ll then use a quill knife (flat on one side and convex on the other, but a pen knife would do the job) to ‘dress’ (cutting and sharpening) to the point. A carefully prepared quill pen lasts up to a week with only infrequent sharpening.
All this work and you haven’t written a word yet? (Sounds like my daily writing routine). You remind yourself that the next time you’re in town, you’d purchase the quill pens from vendors, at fairs, or at stationers’ shops. (Pssst…. the quill will start to go into decline around 1820′s, when metal nibs come in to wider use).
Ink. You could make your own ink following recipes using lampblack (that soot by-product from oil lamps), or the galls of Oak trees. Or you could just purchase sticks of Chinese Ink or Indian Ink from vendors at fairs or stationers’ shops and liquify them with some water.
Writing. Finally, you write your sweet nothings to your love. As you are a frugal and considerate correspondent, you keep in mind that the recipient pays the postage by weight, thus you will strive to send only one sheet (remember paper is expensive also). But what if you have so many ‘sweet nothings’ to impart to your very own Henry, how would you contain all your love all in one sheet?
You write horizontally, then you turn the letter and write across your previous writing, and if you’ve lots to say (and you’re really watching your dear Henry’s shillings), you turn the letter yet again and write diagonally and so forth. You also use the back, but be sure to leave a ‘clean’ area to write the directions. Crossing and recrossing your lines may produce an illegible mess to modern eyes, but contemporary eyes are used to deciphering ill-written handwriting, even if it might take a week or more to decrypt the letter. (Letters were treasured and worth the effort and time when you receive one!).
Envelopes have yet to be developed. You’d simply fold the paper into thirds, and then again before sealing it with melted red wax or a moistened wafer (small disc of flour or gum and coloring), and lastly imprint your seal on the wax. If you’re well-heeled and feeling generous, you could include a guinea or a half-crown in the wax before you seal it in place. Also, if money is no object, you could put a simple wrapper to ‘cover’ the writing, or you could use a ‘franked’ sheet by a member of parliament (MP) as a wrapper/cover. Postage is ‘free’ if franked, but more on this later.
Addressing: You write the direction on the front– rarely more than the name of recipient, the town (or house name) and the county.
If the direction is to some place in London, you would include the the street name. If the direction is to someone residing in a ‘British’ area outside of the country (such as India or the Bahamas or even the Americas), you would indicate it was a ‘ship’ letter somewhere on the letter. (Supposedly, the recipient still pays the for the letter.)
You do not write a return address on the outside ( but you’ve included your name, your house name, village, county inside the letter).
Going Postal. If you happen to live in a town that’s a postal town, meaning it has someone who has a Royal Mail postmaster contract to receive mail at their business (posting inns, coaching inns), you hand over your letter and your trust in the General Post system to deliver it (and that your recipient will pay!).
Postmaster contracts, usually rewarded by who-you-know and what favor you can curry from your MP, are a very lucrative business. In addition to earning a regular income by providing coaches, horses, and drivers, the postmaster/innkeeper for example can charge fares for any passengers on the ‘mail coach,’ plus refreshments/meals sold to passengers. Because the official postmaster contract is given out by favors, a postal town could easily be a sparsely populated one, while a large market town may not have any business attached with a postmaster contract. Interestingly, the ‘post office’ may not necessarily be constricted to a postal road.
What if you live in a non-postal town and/or your recipient lives in a non-postal town?
There are Private Posts that carry letters between towns and to manor houses, etc…, although these village postal services tend to be slow and unreliable, and some went bankrupt without any notice. Still, they would collect your mail and take it to a Royal Mail collection point and bring back returning mail for dispersal. Village post tended to be attached to another business, for example a lending library may also be a post office.
Where there are overlaps with service/routes between Royal Mail service, some enterprising ‘private’ postal services undercut the Royal Mail rates, such as charging two pence to deliver a letter between two postal towns rather than the official four pence via Royal Mail.
How much would your recipient pay to receive your letter?
The size of the letter (how many sheets?) and distance dictate the cost. Efficiency in the postal system did not decrease the rates but rather increase it. The thinking (contrary to our modern concept of production and marketing) was that the better service should demand higher rates. For example, the rate for the approximately forty miles between Salisbury, Wilshire (Fullerton) and Tetbury (Woodston),Glouceshire, for a single letter went from 5 pence to 7 pence from 1801 to 1812. Not so bad an increase, you said? Remember that a working man during Regency times earns about a shilling (12 pence) a day if he’s fortunate to be employed, paying to receive a letter would be a luxury for most.
This explains the widespread evasion of postal charges—even, aghast!, by our own Jane Austen—with the practice of having your dear friend who’s a member of parliament franking your letter for you.
Franking. MPs, by simply writing their full name above the address of the recipient, can mail their correspondence free of charge. It was not unheard of for MPs to ‘frank’ a stack of blank covers for their friends to use at their conveniences, that is, until the post office got wise and added the requirements of date of posting and posting town to the MP’s name, and the letter must be mailed on the date it was addressed. There was also a limit imposed of ten franked letters outgoing a day and fifteen incoming, but as it would be nearly impossible for a humble-born postmaster to tell a MP he’s over the limit, this was very much ignored. (Btw, forgery of franks is a felony and punishable by transportation for seven years, so don’t think about it!) Soldiers were allowed to send letters home for no higher rate than 1 penny until 1840
The use of a ‘postage stamp’ (and some semblance of postal rates standardization) will not be available until 1840, but there may be postal marks on your letter. Your postmaster may ink stamp ‘Free’ if your letter’s been franked, but in general, any kind of postal mark (name of postal town/office which collected the letter, etc…) was left up to the individual postmaster.
Can you prepay your letter so the recipient doesn’t have to? Yes. The postmaster would stamp it Postpaid or Paid at (name of Postal Town). Most people don’t do this because (I suppose) where was the incentive then for the postmen to deliver the letter? Despite Jane Fairfax’s commendation above, more often than not, letters do go ‘astray’ and there wasn’t much you could do about it.
What if your recipient doesn’t want to pay to accept? Remember that back then, unlike our daily deluge of junk mail currently, letters/mail/correspondence were very much treasured. Rarely would anyone refuse a letter, but after 1793, refused letters go to the Dead Letter Office (although more than likely they would either be destroyed by the postmaster.) If there was a stamp on it that tells what postal town it had come from, it may be sent back to that postmaster/post office.
Some people did devise ways to communicate via the post, without the recipient having to pay for postage, by coding their direction in such a way that let the recipient understood the message (I’m alive, Mom) without accepting the letter.
What if you want to send some homemade cookies to your loved ones far away? Sorry, not until the Victorian age with the delivery of mail via railway could you send packages via the post. During the Regency time, you either ask/pay traveling acquaintances you know to take packages (and mail!) for you. Coach drivers deliver ‘parcels’, some of which were actually ‘mail’—smuggling mail to evade the postal fees.
What I’ve described so far is the General Post. London has its own local delivery called the Penny Post (cost 1 penny to deliver a four ounce letter). General Post service both London and the countryside, whereas the Penny Post the London area only. Letters to London from the countryside, ie. Jane Bennet writing to Miss Bingley in town, would tell go from General Post to Penny Post, so the additional charge of 1 penny would apply. London’s Penny Post was more efficient and there were six collections daily.
Phew! Now that was more about the postal system than you ever wanted to know, eh?
Aren’t you glad all you have to do is type a few words and your comment will show up below?
Note: All that I learned about the Regency postal system, I must thank (besides my local university library) the amazing Regency author Shannon Donnelly for teaching a class about Regency Postal system, and also to Regency author Emily Hendrickson for her amazing reference book and (email) correspondences.