“Please Mister Postman, look and see/ If there's a letter in your bag for me”—so sang the Marvelettes when they recorded “Please Mister Postman” in 1961, a song about a woman complaining it is “takin’ such a long time” to get a love letter “from that boy of mine.” With even a quick look in a letter carrier’s mailbag today, we might feel compelled to modify the lyrics as follows: “Please Mister Postman, look and see/ If there’s something in your bag more than junk mail for me.” Junk mail—more correctly called direct mail, bulk mail, and admail—uses bulk mailing rates to put an advertiser’s message directly in the hands of potential consumers in a particular zip code, demographic, or even an entire nation.
Surprisingly, those catalogues, pizza coupons, and pre-approved credit card applications have their roots in the Victorian era. “Circulars,” the Victorian term for unsolicited mailings with wide distribution, took off when the Penny Post of 1840 initiated the prepayment of mail along with an affordable, uniform rate postal. Prepayment came via two inventions attributed to postal reformer Rowland Hill: a postage stamp called the Penny Black, and prepaid postal stationery (Mulready letter sheets and envelopes), which Hill believed would be more popular for personal letters than stamps—although the Victorian public proved him wrong.
Because it was the first postage stamp, the Penny Black did not show a country of origin. Today, British stamps are still the only postage stamps not to do so.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, she appointed a Select Committee on Postage, charged to look into the condition of the post with a view towards postal rate reduction. On August 17, 1839, Queen Victoria gave Royal Assent to the Postage Duties Bill and, in 1840, ushered in a uniform, affordable postal system called the Penny Post. Now a letter weighing up to ½ ounce could travel anywhere in the UK for only a penny. Instrumental to this legislation were widely publicized, arguably exaggerated tales about economic hardship and depravities resulting from high postage.
Though we now humorously refer to letters as “snail mail,” when the Penny Black first appeared, it was an instant success. The postage stamp, prepayment, and a uniform, affordable rate quickly became a model for other nations, including the United States, which, in 1847, designed its first postage stamps. The Penny Post led to an unprecedented boom in letter writing and became a vehicle for education, kinship, friendship, and commerce. But affordable mail rates and prepayment also facilitated slander, blackmail, and unsolicited bulk mailing, which the Victorians called “circulars” and which today we call “direct mail,” “admail,” or, more informally, “junk.”
Circulars promoted a host of mundane and curious products to be distributed by mail; Victorian mailboxes promptly filled with dress pattern books, advertisements selling leeches (for medicinal purposes), leaflets protesting the Corn Laws (expensive taxes designed to protect high priced British grain from more affordable foreign competition), life insurance solicitations, seed catalogues, and political mailings (e.g. protesting the evils of slavery or advocating peace and brotherhood). Victorians began to advertise, send for, and receive by post tree cuttings, manure, medicines, seeds, venison, turtles, fish, and game, leading some Victorians to call the Post Office a “flying bazaar.”Granted, the contents of a letter carrier’s mailbag has changed from the Victorian era to today. Different kinds of “direct mail” now clutter our mailboxes. But the possibility to prepay a letter with a postage stamp, to communicate with someone you don’t know and may never meet, and the ability to spread a message—unsolicited or solicited—through affordable bulk mailings—all date to revolutionary postal reforms of the Victorian age. Indeed, prepayment of mail and the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, made direct mail possible. Little did Queen Victoria realize that in signing the Postage Duties Bill in 1839, she unleashed the floodgates to direct commerce and communication.
Catherine Golden is Professor of English at Skidmore College and author of Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2009). She will deliver “Only a Penny: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing” at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum on Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 1:00 p.m. Sign up for Postmark, the museum's e-newsletter, to find out how to tune into Dr. Golden's talk online!