Text Messaging Before the Telephone

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time recently reading personal letters between various members of Liverpool’s merchant elite in the early nineteenth century. By the late 1700s Liverpool had an established local mail service and was connected to London by direct mail coach in 1785. By 1800 the penny post was a sophisticated and efficient means of communication with several postal deliveries each day within the city. It has been interesting to see just how frequently people communicated with one another. The content of letters was in many cases no more significant than a text message or a quick email might be today; they are ephemeral and insignificant. In fact many of the letters I have been looking at do away with the date and distinguish themselves only with the time of day, suggesting that ‘real time’ conversations were carried out this way even between people living less than half a mile apart.  Here are a couple of real examples from the 1820s and 1830s, both of which went by post (I’m keeping the names to myself until I have permission to publish this material properly):

My Dear Madam

We shall be most happy to wait upon you tomorrow evening, and I shall have much pleasure in the opportunity of seeing your sister and in the mean time I always am

Faithfully and affectionately yours

My Dear Madam

I shall be most happy to visit you this evening. In the mean time I always remain (though more briefly expressed than I could wish being in haste),

My Dear Madam
I am faithfully and affectionately yours

Monday Morng.

It is interesting to see that impromptu and short-notice social engagements were as much part of early-nineteenth century life as they are now. Finding out this kind of thing will be almost impossible for future historians looking back at us.