Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Post Office as a Site of Women's Liberation

In light of the news that the United States Post Office will no longer be delivering the mail on Saturdays, I thought a post-office post was in order.

Over at the blog of Lapham's Quarterly, Angela Serratore has a fascinating post on the way the antebellum New York City post office (located in the Middle Dutch Church at the intersection of Nassau and Liberty Streets) provided a place for women to send and receive personal letters without being monitored by male authority figures.  Here is a taste:

Communication of and by women has always struck fear into the hearts of men (see: novels; epistolary), but until the middle of the nineteenth century it was largely manageable—husbands and fathers, even servants, monitored a lady’s letters, and the wild fluctuations in cost of mail kept all but the wealthiest of girls and women from taking pen to paper on a regular basis. That changed with the standardization of postal prices in 1845. The cost of mailing a letter was reduced to three cents, making the mail accessible to working women, middle-class housewives, and schoolgirls with pocket money. Suddenly, wide swaths of women had access to two dangerous things—the mail and the post office. Anthony Trollope’s 1852 invention of the pillar-box had given British girls a chance to subvert the authority of their scandalized parents by mailing letters in secret, but their New York counterparts who visited the post office could both send and receive mail almost entirely unmonitored by those who might want to regulate their epistolary lives. 

Located in the Middle Dutch Church at the intersection of Nassau and Liberty Streets (below), New York City’s original post office branch had previously played host to a Revolutionary-era prisoner-of-war camp as well as multiple religious congregations. It was, upon becoming a post office in 1845, an immediate disaster. Newspapers complained of its locational inconvenience, its rude staff, and its general wildness. What place was this for a lady?