Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Snail Mail

             No one definitively knows who first coined the term “snail mail.” More than likely it wasn’t Hans Rey, but a letter written to his wife Margret in July 1971 caused me to wonder. At the time I was working at the de Grummond Collection. The curator, Dee Jones, had selected various artifacts from the Rey literary estate for digitization and the image of Hans’ “snail mail” letter was one of those chosen to be imbedded in the online finding aid.
            The text of Hans’ letter was mundane—a simple note to his wife about a list she needed. Worried that Margret would not receive the information she had requested in time, Hans wrote, “In case I don’t get around to writing you tomorrow, or the mail being even slower than usual, here’s the shopping list on a separate sheet.” To emphasize his pique at the slowness of the mail from rural New Hampshire to rural Maine where Margret was attending a pottery workshop, Hans drew a red, white, and blue snail dragging a U.S. mail bag behind its shell.

Letter from Hans Rey to Margret Rey, dated July 6, 1971
McCain Library and Archives
University of Southern Mississippi

            Where did the term “snail mail” originate, I wondered? How far back did use of the term go? Certainly, Hans’ 1971 letter predated e-mail, or so I thought. I posed my question to a Usenet list-serv in December 2002. Almost immediately, a kind computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California responded. He referred me to the Random House Word of the Day for October 20, 2000, that referenced the term in The Hacker’s Dictionary (Steele, 1983). Yet, sadly, no mention of the term’s origin was given.
            I repeated my question to a friend, who happens to be an editor with an encyclopedic memory. He told me that the term may even go back to the invention of the telegraph. Evidently,  an 1840 article in the Philadelphia North American newspaper comparing the slowness of overland mail delivery to the new telegraph proclaimed, "The markets will no longer be dependent upon snail paced [sic] mails." Since then, a 1969 tongue-in-cheek piece titled “Post Office Considers Ways to Worsen Service,” written by The New York Times' famous humor columnist Russell Baker has been unearthed. “There is a long tradition at the Post Office which its planning department hates to break,” Baker wrote. “Traditionally every time the price of mailing a letter goes up a penny, the Post Office devises a new scheme for making service even worse than it was before…. With the last rise, when postage went to 6 cents, [the department] devised the intricate system known as ‘snail mail.’”  Perhaps Baker’s article had popularized the term and inspired Hans’ 1971 drawing.
            Curiously, that same year—1971—another Bostonian was also searching for a faster way to communicate with colleagues who didn’t return his phone calls. Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BBN Technologies in Cambridge, wanted to send an electronic message from his computer to another computer using the Arpanet network, an early version of today’s Internet. Tomlinson’s problem was how to address the message so that it would be received by a specific person on a computer used by several people. As William F. Allman writes in Smithsonian, “Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype…. Using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail, which travelled from one teletype in his room, through Arpanet, and back to a different teletype machine [in the same room].”
            Tomlinson told NPR in 2009 that he can’t remember what he wrote in that first e-mail. “The first e-mail is completely forgettable, and therefore forgotten.” As for his choice of the @, a symbol which dates back to the 16th century, “The @ sign just made sense; it wasn’t commonly used in computing back then, so there wouldn’t be too much confusion. The symbol turns an e-mail address into a phrase. It means ‘user at host.’”
The originator of the term “snail mail" may be lost to history, but even those who used the term as a synonym for posted mail prior to the invention of electronic mail, could not have foreseen its ubiquity in the jargon of 21st century conversation. Tomlinson’s use of the @ symbol in e-mail created the pretext for the term “snail mail” to become synonymous with posted mail, but ironically, the symbol itself foreshadowed the decline of surface mail delivery. For as William Allman tells us, the @ is “called a ‘snail’ by Italians,” and more interestingly for fans of H. A. Rey's most famous character, George, a ‘monkey tail’ by the Dutch. How curious is that?