The Georgian Postal System(s), and Cross-Writing

As I’ve been harping for a while now, modernity didn’t just spring out of nowhere… it got built out of chaos, and it got built, primarily, in the form of systems, since people realized that systematization was an effective way of converting chaos into order. Modernity thrives on order, for better or worse, but as is clear to anyone living in a big city where modernity is a recent import (and not yet completely metabolized), you cannot have a modern metropolis without highly functional, highly integrated systems.

As I’ve mentioned lately, it seems to me that it was in the Georgian era that a lot of this started to come together in London. Whether it’s the invention of modern policing, the roots of rules governing traffic management, the development of laws governing food adulteration, the industrialization of various forms of production (as pioneered by brewers), controls on stock speculation (as I’ll explore in an upcoming post on the South Sea Bubble), and in many other ways, so much seems to trace back to the days of Hogarth, Walpole, and John Gay, and Alderman Parsons.

Another example is postal systems. England’s postal system was pretty much a barely-functional mess, inaccessible to any but the rich, impractical, and unreliable… as well as not useful within London–it didn’t deliver letters to addresses within the same city as the sender!

Then the Penny Post came along, and changed all that. Sort of. You can read more about that in this wonderfully detailed post at Jane Austen World, which discusses the development of the postal system in England from the 1630s through to the 19th century.  The Penny Post discussed in the text was popular among early Georgians, and, for example Defoe sang its praises not only in terms of efficiency and affordability but also in how it was a uniquely English invention. It was the Georgian London’s equivalent of DHL, UPS, or FedEx, basically.

(I found that even more interesting since, according to some other recent reading I’ve been doing, the postal system in Seoul, which was launched in 1895, and by the 1920s had attained a similar status… meaning it took a similar time lag–about 25 years–to catch on to the same sort of degree, and wholly revolutionize urban communications in Seoul.1 That’s just one more little hint that part of Korea’s current struggle to internalize and digest the systematizing nature of modernity is pretty similar to the struggle with internalizing the same thing, that the English went through from about 1700 until late in the 1800s.)

But for me, the most interesting bit is the cross-writing phenomenon. Maybe this isn’t a newsflash to anyone else, but I’d never heard about it before, which is a bit ridiculous, but anyway, there you are.

Here’s an example of cross-writing–a letter writte by Jane Austen:

A letter written by Jane Austen using the Cross-Writing method.

Different accounts suggest that people did this to save on postal expenses (since the Royal Post charged by the sheet, not by weight or flat rate) or to  conserve paper (which, for example, soldiers would have had to do given their limited access). Perhaps there’s a bit of both at play, in some cases, but anyway the practice seems to have been widespread, and for good reason: either way, cross-writing allowed people to write several pages of text onto a single sheet of paper.

While it looks like trying to read that would give anyone a headache, this seems to have been common practice in the English-speaking world–both in England and the New World–at the time, and it’s said that once you got used to it, the vertical text lines faded into the background, while the horizontal ones were easy to parse. I suppose it would take practice… but it’s worth remembering that any literate person would have been accustomed to doing this at the time. You can see some more samples here. 

One wonders whether alchemists, who were interested in cryptographic writing for ages and ages, and in steganography all the way back to the time of Bacon and his cipher, might not have explored cross-writing as another way of encoding information–the intersections of words somehow being used to yield data that a casual reader would not notice–but I haven’t turned up anything of the kind. Then again, it sounds like a nightmare to pull off, so…

Oh, and since I’ve mentioned Bacon and steganography (two words that seem to attract nutters), I’ll just link the Shakespeare Authorship page, which pretty much destroys the silly conspiracy theory that Francis Bacon (or anyone else but William Shakespeare himself) wrote Shakespeare.

1. See “The World in a Love Letter” by Bodeurae Kwon, collected in The Korean Popular Culture Reader ed. Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. (Duke University Press, 2014)

4 thoughts on “The Georgian Postal System(s), and Cross-Writing

  1. Good stuff.

    Another great example of modernity as order-out-of-chaos, imho, is the emergence of financing and double-entry bookkeeping in Renaissance Italy. I love reading about all the alternative systems for money that were tried over the years and discarded for various reasons. (It’s also a great antidote for bores who think they current money system is a vast conspiracy of one sort or another).

    1. Hey Mark,

      Thanks! Yeah, I’ve done a little reading about the emergence of financing and double-entry bookkeeping in Renaissance Italy, because of Ezra Pound’s obsession with it, and with several of those alternative money systems that were tried and discarded. Somehow, knowing all about it wasn’t antidote enough for Pound, unfortunately for him. But yeah, it’s fascinating stuff. Scrip especially is interesting as a Poundian obsession (I imagine because his granddad was lumber/railway man, and logging camps often issued scrip?). Personally, I’d picked up enough about scrip both in terms of its use in scrip in terms of Métis history in Saskatchewan, and in terms of horror stories about workers being paid in company scrip in Canadian logging camps, for the word to have a bad connotation for me from the outset.

      (I finished elementary school and did all of middle school in a town that was basically run by Weyerhauser, but which also had a massive Métis population, so scrip in both contexts just sort of came up at school.)

      As for the emergence of financing: it seems it only trickled down to the common man (and woman) in England around the time of the South Sea Bubble, which is quite a bit later… and which was disastrous. Charles MacKay is–as always–an entertaining commentator on the subject, in his famous book. The parallels with more recent bubbles–especially in terms of how nobody seemed to be willing to blame all the fools who bought beyond their means–give it a very, very familiar air. The South Sea Bubble will probably be the topic of my next post, actually.

      But as for bookkeeping and brewing, the funny thing is that in England, I have the impression from Peter Mathias that some of the most complex English financial record-keeping in the 1700s (especially towards the mid-1700s) was among brewers, mostly because they were the first to truly scale up their business to an industrial mass production level, but also because they dependent on different types of accounts for different sources of raw materials (farmers/raw grain distributors, maltsters, hop merchants, oak suppliers, horse merchants), and supplied various customers in turn (horse dealers, farmers, distillers, bakers, and most of all publicans); each type of relationship cam with a different customary credit period, and the customary credit periods differed for different products, too. (There was a longer period of credit extension for grain or malt than for hops, for example.) So they had to find a way to track all of that or end up bankrupt, and it ended up taking the form of very attentive record-keeping in a whole set of logs: hop logs, grain logs, yeast logs. Ha, there are also lots of climatological records in brewers’ logs, since brewers, aware of the link between beer and weather, took pains to track the day’s weather conditions in their brewing logs.

  2. You make some interesting points about brewing and bookkeeping. As Peter Drucker often wrote, management is a very modern field, something that required giant modern companies. In the 18th century, not much this side of militaries and shipping/shipbuilding would have required complicated bookkeeping and cash-flow management. And brewing, I guess.

    As for bubbles, personally I am not too hard on the fools who spend beyond their means. That’s why banks used to be so conservative — remember the old line about how banks only loan to people who can prove they don’t need the money? Everyone is greedy and short-sighted; but, there was a time when the money people were supposed to manage risk, not foment it.

    1. Hey,

      In the 18th century, not much this side of militaries and shipping/shipbuilding would have required complicated bookkeeping and cash-flow management. And brewing, I guess.

      Ha, also, externalization. There was a law that soldiers had to be housed at public houses (i.e. pubs). If you wanted a license to operate, you have also to be willing to provide a room or two for local troops. Not sure how long that went on, but it reduced the bookkeeping and cash-flow management for armies to transport, arms, and enlistment. (The public house had to soak the expense for actually feeding and providing beer for the soldiers in peacetime.)

      And yeah, just in the past week or two I’ve been intensively researching the Bubble and, well, the whole “gambling mania” view of why people sank their everything into the South Sea Company has been discarded by most serious economists. What’s interesting is how rationality and irrationality both play a part, but in a more humbling (and somewhat more frightening) sense… a sense that probably could be mapped onto other collective gambles we’re making today (like, for example, our ongoing procrastination about doing anything truly proactive about climate change).

      In other words, we’re not significantly cleverer than the people ruined by the South Sea Bubble; we just have different blind spots, assumptions, and irrational beliefs.

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