Monday, June 10, 2013

Paper, Pen and the Pony Express

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Pony Express poster

Communication was difficult on the western frontier, especially in the early days. Mail delivery was a slow, undependable process fraught with danger from nature and Indian attack. From Apr. 1860 until Oct. 1861, the Pony Express tackled the problem with a relay system of horseback riders who covered the distance between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California in about 10 days.

Famous for their bravery and riding skills, the famous Pony Express riders have been immortalized in countless books, movies and TV productions. The Young Riders, a series focusing on the daredevils who signed on for the hazardous job ran from 1989 through 1991. It was a hit at my house!

The Pony Express National Museum, located in St. Joseph, MO, commemorates the iconic mail service, and if you’re ever in Jacksonville, Oregon, be sure to see this dramatic statue of a hell-bent-for-leather rider. My author friend Rain Trueax took these photos and kindly gave me permission to post them. She says Jacksonville is a very historic town, probably explaining the statue’s presence there.

Pony express rider combo

The legendary mail delivery system was replaced by the telegraph, making it far easier and faster to send important messages across the rolling plains and mountains. However, letters to friends and family weren’t, in most cases, such a high priority. Dependent upon horse-drawn stagecoaches, riverboats and rail service, it could still take weeks, even months for a letter to reach its destination, if it wasn’t lost or destroyed along the way.

What about pen and paper to write those letters? Did you ever wonder how easy, or difficult, it was to obtain such items in isolated western towns, ranches and farms? Prior to the 1840s in the United States, paper was made from recycled rags. The process was slow, tedious and expensive, making paper beyond the means of many people.

In 1840 Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented wood pulp paper, much less expensive to create and purchase. However, it still cost money to transport paper journals and stationary to far-flung western locals. Pioneers didn’t scribble on a sheet of paper and toss it out the way we do in out throw-away society. When they wrote a letter, they took their time composing it. The same undoubtedly applied to those who kept diaries, such a valuable resource for historical researchers.

Pens were also precious possessions for our pioneer ancestors. Steel pens were introduced in France, in 1748, and cylindrical steel pens cut like quills in 1780. The first plunger-filled fountain pen was invented in 1833, but the first practical version didn’t come along until the 1880s. You can be sure if a frontiersman or woman owned one, it was well guarded.

Pencils evolved later than pens. Not until 1795 did a graphite pencil come into existence. How easy they were to come by on the frontier, I haven’t yet discovered, but I suspect they, too, were horded as long as possible.

All of which just reminds us how lucky we are today. A century or two ago computers and the internet would have been seen as fanciful dreams, possibly even works of the devil.

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16 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

That was really interesting on the riders and how communication developed through the West. I am so glad you could use that sculpture. I love and always photograph sculptures that are put on the corner somewhere and depict a bit of history. It's like finding an unexpected treasure.

Ciara Gold said...

Excellent post, Lyn and so true about the writing emplements. They had to write bill of sales and things like that so it does make you wonder.

Lyn Horner said...

Rain, thanks so much for letting me use your photos. The sculpture is marvelous! I had a hard time deciding which photos to use.

Lyn Horner said...

Ciara, finding info about writing instruments, paper and mailing methods on the frontier is not easy. I have copies of sales receipts signed by my gr gr grandfather. The writing is faded and hard to make out in some cases. I can't even tell if a pen or pencil was used. Frustrating! Sometimes I feel like an archeologist hunting for long buried bones.

7140c0c8-64a9-11e2-bcec-000bcdcb2996 said...

What a great post, Lyn!!! I'm always excited to know more about technology that we take for granted today, like paper! Myself, I'm a bit in love with fountain pens, and try to find them wherever I go. They are getting harder and harder to find!

Oh, and was a hit in our house too!
-Lani

Caroline Clemmons said...

Lyn, excellent post. I had no idea pens had been around that long. I suspect a bladder-pen would have been a luxury item and very expensive. I saw a letter written by a woman in my husband's lineage to her brother in the Civil War. The writing was small and every inch of space used. When she got to the bottom of the page, she turned the paper and wrote on the margins, turned it again, and wrote between the lines. The outside of the paper, folded and sealed, formed the envelope. Quite different than the way we use paper today!

ellaquinnauthor said...

Wonderful and informative post.

Lana Williams said...

Great post, Lyn! It's interesting to think about communication then versus now! Tweeted as well.

Lyn Horner said...

Thanks, Lani. I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Technology is a fascinating subject in any age.

Lyn Horner said...

Caroline, some of the bits a cousin shared with me from our ancestors is much like you describe. Cramped writing with the margins filled in. One disturbing letter hints strongly that my gr grandfather was considering suicide. He'd gone through some very bad times, I gather.

Lyn Horner said...

I appreciate you stopping by, Ella. Sharing historical info is one of the joys of writing.

Lyn Horner said...

Lana, we are really lucky to live in an age of instant messaging to anywhere in the world. I wonder how the old time pioneers would view all our modern conveniences.

Thanks for tweeting!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I remember the movie, The Postman, with Kevin Costner about a futuristic world sent back into time by war and how the Pony Express came back to help people communicate and unite a nation reeling in fear and it brought them hope and unity. I imagine those fearless riders in the orignial Pony Express were much the same. What courage.
Great article. Oh. BTW, I had always thought pencils came before fountain pens. Ya learn something every day.

Sharla Rae said...

I do a lot of research but never came across this info. Thanks Lyn. A great post!

Lyn Horner said...

Sarah, I have The Postman on DVD and have watched it several times. Some of the dialogue is a bit hokey, but the story is great. Yes, it does bring to mind the Pony express riders and all the dangers they faced. Thanks for dropping in and reminding me of it.

Lyn Horner said...

Shar, I got most of that info from a book I found on Amazon. I can't recall the exact title right this second, but it was about household technology developments through the ages. Excellent resource!