Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Review: "The Englishman Who Mailed Himself and Other Curious Objects"

John Tingey's The Englishman Who Mailed Himself and Other Curious Objects (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) may well be the best designed book of the year. Tingey's fascinating subject, combined with Deb Wood's excellent design, make this book not only a great read, but a treat for the eye and a wonderful example of how imagery, typography, and text can work together to create a beautiful, coherent physical book.

Unless you're a very committed philatelist or postal historian (or a relative), you've probably never heard of W. Reginald Bray. I hadn't. But his story is well worth the telling, and John Tingey's certainly done that. In the late 1890s Bray discovered that Britain's postal regulations not only allowed for some creative methods of addressing mail (among the ways he tested were writing addresses in rhyme, or backwards, or by using rebuses), but also for sending through the post certain non-standard materials, so long as the correct postage was included. He decided to test the regulations (and the ingenuity of postal carriers) over the next few decades, sending such things as a turnip (with the address carved into the vegetable with a penknife), a frying pen, his bicycle pump, an old coin, &c.

Living things too did not escape being sent through the post: Bray discovered that postal regulations allowed for the sending of animals (he argued in an article that it would be terribly convenient to mail home your dog: "Now, should you one day take a stroll through the Park with a smart little terrier at your heels, and should you suddenly wish to send him home, what are you to do? The answer is simple. Why, take him to the Post Office, of course! After handing in the address and paying a small fee, you leave him and make your call. And when you return there you will find him waiting on the mat to greet you as lively as a cricket after his passing through the post" (p. 72). And naturally this little tidbit in the Postal Regulations did not escape Bray's notice: "a person may be conducted by Express Messenger to any address on payment of the mileage charge." Bray is known to have mailed himself several times, and once extolled the benefits of the service in a television interview: "Once on a very foggy night I could not find a friend's house so instead of wandering about for hours I posted myself and was delivered in five minutes" (p. 80).

Bray also invested much time and energy in obtaining foreign and interesting postal stamps and postmarks: he tried to send a postcard to the president of the Transvaal during the Boer War, apparently just to get the rare "Mail Service Suspended" stamp, and he later sent out more than 32,000 requests through the mail for autographs from all manner of celebrities major and minor (many of whom seem to have obliged).

While much of Bray's collection of postal curiosities and autographs was sold off by his family after his death, and appears to have been scattered to the winds, Tingey and others have accumulated large collections of them, and a wide range of the known examples are included here, reproduced very nicely. I'm sure the book and Tingey's website will bring some more of Bray's creations out of the woodwork.

For anyone interested in quirky history, postal art, or simply well designed books, I can't recommend this book more highly.

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