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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)

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