By John Willis1 Canadian Postal Museum-Canadian Museum of ... According to Arlette Farge, popular...

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    XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki 2006, Session 107

    (New and Improved: Version en date du 16/08/2006)

    The Voice in the Street, the Merchant’s Desk and the Emergence of the Canadian

    Postal Network

    By John Willis1

    Canadian Postal Museum-Canadian Museum of Civilization

    (Revised Preliminary Draft of paper for Postal Session no. 107 at the International

    Economic History Conference. Handle with circumspection)


    Every Tuesday or Wednesday a man comes to empty my blue recycling bin at the office.

    Polite greetings and formalities are exchanged and we then go about our business. The

    amount of paper thus disposed in not overwhelming, but it is a good thing that he never

    fails to come as my office is not always in order. I consume a lot of paper, printing out e-

    mails, preparing reports and reading or writing letters. In so doing I partake of a habit of

    communication that has been 500 years in the making.

    The goal of this presentation is to briefly examine postal communication as part of the

    overall growth of written communication throughout the western world. The ultimate

    purpose is and must be to shed light on the Canadian postal experience, but we may have

    to take a long detour, in terms of geography and subject matter in order to arrive at the

    beginning of a satisfactory course of exploration. The post, for us, cannot be studied sui

    generis, as some sort of self-sustaining variable, moving from one methodological slope

    to the next like a self-propelled tumbleweed. It is part of a larger historical context that

    saw certain social forces push directly for the establishment of a postal system, and

    others, which preceded considerably the post in time, that subsequently become

    embodied in these very systems. The latter have since and in turn helped reshape the post.

    1 I should like to thank for their comments on a previous version: Laura Branda (CWM), Richard Kielbowicz. D. Gerber, Y. Frenette and M. Martel. Thanks as well to Pierrick Labbé and Jesse Alexander for research assistance.

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    Once the modern postal network came into its own, in western society, say in the 19th

    century, it constituted a level of communication and cultural infrastructure, a network,

    functioning in tandem with other agencies and devices that lay the foundation of our

    modern communication society. The internet and the six o’clock news are ubiquitous in

    contemporary thinking on communication. How quickly we seem to forget the anteriorité

    of the post in establishing our networked communication standards and expectations.

    Succinctly stated, my view is that there have been two main locomotives that have

    pushed the written form and hence the post, toward the forefront of communication. One

    is voice. This might sound paradoxical, stressing the agency of an oral medium for voice

    is the instrument of conversation, en tête-à-tête or in a group. However by virtue of its

    interpersonal nature it can have written outcomes. Voice, a remarkably fluid form of

    communication, eventually became embodied – absorbed but not subsumed - in postal

    communication although on its own, it continues to represent a powerful agency of

    communication. The other driving engine of communication, is the desk or the table

    supporting the paper. The desk signified a process in which a constellation of diverse

    interests pushed directly for expanded postal linkage in order to make feasible the

    conduct of business.

    What kind of business are we talking about? The desk or table top is a writing surface

    accommodating a variety of groups, usually the elite, or their literate footservants, who

    earn their living by putting pencil to paper. The desk can be in a counting house, the table

    in a coffee-house, in both cases serving the needs of a merchant. It might also be issued

    to an officer of the crown, member of a royal administration, who is in charge of

    organizing logistics, fiscal or military. In modern Europe, you couldn’t wage war let

    alone manage the colonies without a bureaucracy in charge of logistics, ever exchanging

    information and moving pawns across the geopolitical chess board. Noblesse d’épée and

    noblesse de robe had to conjoin their efforts. And the clergy were busy at their desks too,

    directing or receiving instructions from the Vatican and the Archbishop, from the old

    world to the new.

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    The voice in the street and the merchant’s desk eventually become interwoven in a world-

    wide communication system or postal village. The resulting marriage de raison coalesces

    into a robust communication network which, working along and in tandem with other

    agencies lays the basis of our modern communication networks in which the written form

    plays such an important role.

    For the purposes of this presentation I will focus first on voice, and next on the

    mercantile perspective in a global context. Both have bearing on the history of written

    communication and therefore the post. I will argue that the post should be viewed as the

    dean of communication networks whether on a world or a metropolitan scale. I will

    situate the emergence of the Canadian postal network and conclude that there is abundant

    evidence of voice and business running throughout and shaping our postal history. For

    the most part the argument will wrest on secondary sources, as the task here is to

    establish an interpretative framework, yet here and there some primary material will be

    incorporated into the exposition.

    The Human Voice

    The human voice is a message carrier with meaning. However personal, it is invariably of

    social significance for ultimately it constitutes an act of communication. There is an

    etiquette underlying oral expression; there are always certain rules that must be followed.

    Words were freely expressed in the salon of Mme de Rambouillet in the 17th century, but

    the hostess, of necessity, used all her tact and vivacity in order to loosen tongues and

    keep the conversation going. In Madagascar, Theodore Zeldin tells us, the men are so

    afraid of speaking in public that that leave this privilege to the women. The latter, assume

    their role, presumably with relish, however when they are upset, or when they articulate a

    critical opinion, they verbalize not in their mother tongue but in the French language.

    Men, for their part will express anger, also in the French language, solely in the company

    of their livestock. 2

    2 Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, London, Vintage, 1998: p. 32.

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    In other instances, other rules apply. Carlo Levi was a political prisoner banished to the

    south of Italy during the 1930s. He describes the scene in his village of Gagliano at the

    end of day. On one side of the piazza were the village “gentry” (notables), cigarettes

    hanging from their mouths, seated on a retaining wall, taking in the evening breeze. On

    the other side, their backs to another wall were the peasants. Their voices did not traverse

    the street; they are not heard by the other crowd. In effect two parallel sets of

    conversations occur within the village place. Dialogue was kept to a minimum; Socrates

    would not have been pleased. 3

    Instrument of conversation and communication the human voice is also a medium of

    consolation. The mother rocks the cradle and hums a lullaby, which soothes the child’s

    nerves. The men sing at their work, especially if they are sailors, for song and labour at

    sea are inextricably linked. In Afro-American culture it was almost impossible to work

    without singing. 4 Gangs of labourers lay down railway track following the vocal cadence

    of their song leader, who imports rhythm, order, to the work. The leader occupies a

    position of prestige amongst the group but he can be detested if he dares exaggerate the

    cadence of the work and thereby exhaust his fellows. In British North America, the men

    with the finest voices became the song masters (maîtres à chanter) aboard the canoes of

    the fur trade voyageurs. The crew can reach into a veritable repertoire of songs, some of

    which were intended to coordinate the work of paddling (c’est l’aviron qui nous mène);

    others serving to generate esprit de corps as crews melodiously teased and chastised one

    another. 5

    Paris is the city that never sleeps in the 19th century. The calm of night is relative,

    punctuated as it is by a population given to nocturnal activities of every sort. Cabarets,

    cafés, theatres, modern department stores (les grands magasins), are settings conducive to

    conversation. Observers found that the noise-level was noticeable and continuous, the

    result of street traffic that would extend into the wee hours of night. Paris c’est Paris.

    3 Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, New York, Farrar Strass and Giroux, 1963: p. 11. 4 Lawrence Levine, Black Culture. And Black Consciousness. Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977: p. 208-209. 5 Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World. Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade, University of Nebraska Press, 2006: Chapter 4 “It i