Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 9, 2011

The Eighteenth Century Strikes Back

Filed under: Business History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Printing History — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:47 am
James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889). Benjamin Franklin, 1880. Oil on canvas. Library Company of Philadelphia. Purchased by the Library Company, 1880.

I'll read what he's reading.

Sometimes it seems that each time society, culture, and technology move forward through either innovation or evolution, they take a longing glance backwards to see if there are any useful ideas to poach.

In other words, in this first decade of the twenty-first century we’re seeing an efflorescence of eighteenth-century concepts.

Today’s example comes from Adrian Teal, a British cartoonist who’s at work on a graphic novel entitled The Gin Lane Gazette based on a fictionalized eighteenth-century newspaper. In this case, the content is a coincidence. What’s striking is the reason for the publicity: rather than seek a contract with a traditional publishing house, Teal is publishing the book through an outfit called Unbound by subscription. As I noted on Twitter a few days ago, it’s an eighteenth-century solution for a twenty-first century problem.

Publishing by subscription was one of the most common means by which printers, publishers, and booksellers overcame their usual dearth of capital in the eighteenth century. If you could round up people willing to pay in advance, you could assure that you’d break even on a project. Publishers used it for everything from pamphlets to novel reprints to editions of the Bible.

And if you go to the site for The Gin Lane Gazette, you’ll see that Teal and Unbound have adopted another earlier technique by offering to publish the names of subscribers in the volume when it appears. For eighteenth-century publishers, this was particularly crucial, because you would try to round up the most popular, important, and famous men and women you could to subscribe as a mark of how successful your publication would be.

To offer just one example: Mathew Carey, perhaps the most important publisher in the early Republic (until I take up residence in Worcester in Febraury, anyway), used subscriptions to great effect in his career, and eagerly sought celebrity endorsements. For his American Museum, a magazine published from 1787-1792, he obtained subscriptions from George Washington, John Dickinson, and New Jersey Governor William Livingston. But not all his attempts met with success. In fact, just yesterday afternoon I was reading some of his fawning attempts to get Benjamin Franklin to subscribe in the hope that it would improve the publication’s prospects (it probably didn’t help matters that he mentioned that having Washington already was probably just as good, if not better, than old Ben).

In the United States in the 1780s, Washington and Franklin were the ultimate celebrity endorsers, and as such were swamped with dozens, if not hundreds, of requests to subscribe to books, pamphlets, and magazines. As Michael Jordan was to sneakers and Peyton Manning is now to, well, everything, so Washington, Franklin, and several other Founders were to every species of print.

There’s no indication whether Teal has enlisted any members of the royal family, former Beatles, or Manchester United midfielders to headline his subscription list. While I don’t have a stake in the outcome of the project, I must admit to some curiosity about whether this innovative return to the past will succeed.

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December 5, 2011

The Post Office as State-Business Hybrid

Filed under: Business History,Congress,Government,Joe Adelman's Posts,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 1:09 pm

News about the post office is circulating rapidly (which is ironic, given that the news is about cuts that will slow service). Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an analysis of the finances of the U.S. Postal Service, concluding that it could not survive without junk mail. And then this morning, the USPS itself announced anticipated service cuts that will close more than half of the 500 processing centers around the country, slowing mail delivery and eliminating (for practical purposes) next-day delivery of first-class mail.

As I’ve argued in other spaces, and as J.L. Bell commented on my post last Friday, Congress has asked the Postal Service to do the impossible: act as a monopoly universal provider and make a profit. It’s taken a while, but postal officials are finally starting to put things in those terms:

“We are in a deep financial crisis today because we have a business model that is tied to the past,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said during a speech last month. “We are expected to operate like a business, but we do not have the flexibility to do so. Our business model is fundamentally inflexible. It prevents the Postal Service from solving problems and being effective in the way a business would.”

This is an unsustainable model for the long term. I would also stipulate that a major problem for the postal service is the massive obligations it is under for its pension system, though the problem runs far deeper (and therefore I won’t discuss it). Most importantly, I think the Postmaster General is underselling the issue. The key question is whether, as I noted on Friday, the government has a vested interest (i.e., a reason to fund) in providing a means to communicate by paper and packages throughout the country. The problem is and has been that Congress hasn’t asked that question. People want to privatize it or “rescue” it, but with little examination of the underlying question of whether society’s interest in the circulation of information in this manner is worth an expenditure.

The question is deeply vexed and has a long history. The 1710 Post Office Act of Parliament established the Post Office in North America (with headquarters in New York) for the purpose of facilitating communication but also with the explicit assumption that it would produce revenue that could accrue to the Treasury. (The revenue was initially to go for the support of the royal family.) It didn’t make money until the 1760s, when Benjamin Franklin as Deputy Postmaster General for North America instituted a series of reforms that streamlined and improved service. As I noted previously, the post office was important enough that it was one of the first actions of the Second Continental Congress, and it is also one of the few government agencies that Congress is explicitly authorized to regulate in the enumerated powers clause of the Constitution. Questions of revenue generation continued into the nineteenth century, when the Post Office made an enormous profit. And of course the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which converted the Post Office Department into an independent government agency as the U.S. Postal Service, focused on ways to make the Post Office profitable again.

It’s also important to consider that the communication that flows through the postal system has changed dramatically. At its inception, the Post Office was a means to circulate political information (through newspapers and other publications), official mail, and commercial information, and rates were set accordingly. Alexis de Tocqueville, on his tour of the United States in 1831, noted with wonder how thorough information circulated in the nation:

I travelled along a portion of the frontier of the United States in a sort of cart, which was termed the mail. We passed, day and night, with great rapidity, along the roads, which were scarcely marked out through immense forests. When the gloom of the woods became impenetrable, the driver lighted branches of pine, and we journeyed along the light they cast. From time to time, we came to a hut in the midst of the forest; this was a post-office. The mail dropped an enormous bundle of letters at the door of this isolated dwelling, and we pursued our way at full gallop, leaving the inhabitants of the neighboring log-houses to send for their share of the treasure.

The post office was, as Richard John has demonstrated, the branch of the federal government most present in the lives of Americans, and served as an outlet for encouraging informed political debate (or at least that was the ideal). Not until the 1840s and 1850s did Congress lower the price of sending a letter to a level that encouraged mass use of the genre, which led to the development of new forms of mail, including the valentine and advertising circulars. Now, as the New York Times piece cites, junk mail–that is, unsolicited advertising–constitutes a major component of the Post Office’s revenue stream. We no longer get our newspapers, as Tocqueville once noted, through the post office. We no longer send personal letters.

At some point, therefore, the ideal of government-sponsored communications channels fell by the wayside. What I hope Congress and the media will pick up on is the question of whether society and government have an interest in guaranteeing this sort of service, and if so, how. Whether that leads to the demise of the Post Office is up to Congress.

UPDATE (12/6, 9:31am): Just found that Richard R. John did a study for the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2008 entitled, History of Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly. Provides a good background with quite a bit more detail than I’ve provided here.

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December 2, 2011

The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Postal Service

Filed under: Business History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 12:09 pm

This will likely be the first of several posts (heh!) I write on the post office; anyone who knows me knows that it’s a bit of an obsession of mine.

Tenured Radical, writing at The Chronicle, has inspired me to finally offer something in this space. After a recent visit to her local post office, she speculates that it “may … simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.” She found a business both antiquated and in tatters: the post office could not accept credit cards, and had a diagram up for children about how to properly address and stamp an envelope that seems silly to most adults. I love the post office, but I’m guessing she’s probably right about its impending demise, at least as far as a public (or really quasi-public) postal service is concerned.

What’s striking me at the moment about that likelihood is the implication of a potential closure of the post office. It will mean that, for the first time in its history (one that predates independence), the state will have left the public information business. The Post Office was one of the first institutions established by the Continental Congress in July 1775. The only institutions that predated it as representatives of the united colonies were Congress itself and the Continental Army—that’s it. The Post Office is older than the Navy, older than the Marine Corps, older than the Presidency and the Supreme Court. The first Federal Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood, was a member of Washington’s Cabinet.

Why? Information is (or was) important to the state. Keeping the channels through which information flowed open was a vital state matter, and made the post office a central player in creating an informed citizenry to participate in American democracy. (Especially prior to the Revolution, it was also a tool of state surveillance and censorship, lest I appear too Whiggish.)

Since the eighteenth century, the United States has had a more ambiguous relationship to new information technologies. As Richard John recently showed, Congress declined to take ownership of Morse’s telegraph lines, and likewise stayed out of the telephone industry. In the 1960s, DARPA, an agency within the Department of Defense, created the Internet (possibly with the assistance of an earnest Harvard government concentrator). That too, however, is now primarily in private hands.

The post office is all that’s left, and even that is really not quite public. The United States Postal Service operates independently, though it maintains universal service and meets other mandates set by Congress. But if and when it goes the government will no longer play any role in guaranteeing for its citizens the ability to transmit information. Some in the Senate seem more concerned that we should be sending more love letters, but I find the larger question far more troubling, even taking into account the real and dire financial situation in which the USPS finds itself.

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