The Birth of Cheap Communication

When the United States introduced cheap, flat postal rates, correspondents enjoyed something like our broadband today. Communication became more frequent, and ties were strengthened among families and friends. Unfortunately, cheap rates also led to junk mail and postal scams. In the early 1800s, before the postal reforms, Americans often sent letters that weren’t letters at all, but newspapers they had received in the mail and then resent to distant friends and family. Postal rates favored the practice, as newspapers could be re-mailed in their entirety for about what a single-sheet letter would cost,— and the sender was spared the obligation of writing an actual letter. In 1851, Congress substantially reduced the cost of sending a letter and offered a steep discount for prepayment. However, inexpensive postage didn’t spur people to send long, handwritten letters, so much as it enabled advertisers to spew out unsolicited junk mail on a mass scale. By 1855, 30 or 40 mailbags filled with nothing but printed “circulars” for lotteries and patent medicines arrived daily at some post offices. The same postal reforms that allowed family members and legitimate businesses to get in touch inexpensively also made it possible for cheats to do so, too. After the Civil War, more than 2,000 “swindling establishments” were using the postal system. These operators sent out tens of thousands of solicitations and at minimal expense, and even a small percentage of replies from eager victims remitting a dollar or just a postage stamp could translate into a major windfall. Today, those circulars and dozens of other unsolicited pieces of mail still get crammed into our mailboxes on a daily basis. It’s absolutely true that there’s nothing new under the sun……especially when it comes to junk mail.