Academia / Letters

Mapping the postal network

Over the course of this school year, I’ve been involved with starting up Digital Experiments, a new graduate student working group at NYU. We’ve had a number of goals: familiarizing ourselves with the digital humanities community, learning some semi-tech competent skills and techniques, and working on a collaborative project using the topic modeling tool MALLET. We’ve got some really cool results using text from The Spectator, but the project has also helped me think about how to use digital tools in my own dissertation project on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letter writing. So far, I’ve learned some basic GIS skills and produced two maps that help visualize the arguments I’m making about the global circulation of British letters.

This map shows the layout of the British postal system in the late seventeenth century. What I’m interested in is the center-periphery relationship it necessarily establishes. There were no postal by-roads until the later eighteenth century, meaning that a letter traveling from, say, Plymouth to Chester would have to first travel into London on the West Road, be sorted at the central post office, and then head back out along the Chester Road (and postage, which was paid by the recipient, was calculated based on the number of miles traveled). The spokes of the post roads then connected at particular points to foreign ports, reinforcing this center-periphery grid.

And this map shows the cities from which news in the London (Oxford) Gazette, Britain’s first newspaper, originated during the paper’s first six months of existence. The newspaper’s editor, Henry Muddiman, had a network of correspondents all over Europe, and most of the news he printed had to do with Continental politics and war. The map shows at a glance how integral a postal system was to the early newspaper—the notices cluster around the major European capitals and the English ports, such as Plymouth, Yarmouth, and Dover, which were situated at the terminal points of the six post roads.

I made the maps using ArcGIS software and Adobe Illustrator.

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