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The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I sort of stole this book review from my husband, meaning that I robbed him of the opportunity to review it himself as soon as I set eyes on it after his discovering and sharing it with me. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt is as beautiful as it is brilliant. But first, who are these guys and why everyday design?

Roman Mars is the creator and host of the fascinating and entertaining 99% Invisible podcast (est. 2010). Initially, 99% Invisible was a one-man show, but has since grown into a talented staff, including Kurt Kohlstedt, who is the digital director and a producer, as well as co-author of this book. On 99pi.org, they describe the podcast as being “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In other words, it’s about everyday design. The premise for the book reflects that of the podcast. Now, let’s tune in to the book proper.

The 99% Invisible City is tangibly splendid, making it clear that careful consideration went not only into the design of the book, but the touch and feel of its materials. The texture and weight of its matte pages are pleasant to the touch and the embossed cover and half-sized jacket are nice features. Of special note is the cover image. Spanning both covers, several figures within the image are labeled numerically, corresponding to the legend printed inside the book jacket. I repeat: the legend printed inside the book jacket—almost too cool!

Content is organized into six chapters, each of which is further arranged into three to six sections containing short entries. I appreciate a well-organized book, especially when, like in this one, an array of topics is covered. It’s as well-researched as it is organized, with an expansive bibliography that, if you’re interested, doubles as a “further reading” list.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a coffee table book, as it’s not glossy and oversized (or overpriced), I’d say it’s like a coffee table book in that it’s interesting to look at, makes for a great conversation piece, and is suitable for casual reading while still appealing to avid readers.

The 99% Invisible City is exactly as it claims, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Like most field guides, it can be read in its entirety or in bits and pieces. I skipped ahead to chapter four – Architecture, my favorite – after reading chapter one only in part and wandering about here and there in other parts of the book. Regardless of how its read, it recalls visuals of everyday things I’ve seen and wondered “What/why is that?!”

Have you ever heard of stink pipes (think obelisks)? According to Mars and Kohlstedt, obelisks and “other seemingly innocuous sculptures in cities around the world” are, by design, meant to ventilate their sewer systems. So, if you find yourself near such a structure, then you might give the air a sniff to see whether the sculpture is functional or purely aesthetic.

The standardization of utility codes, such as those one sometimes sees spray painted on the ground, came into being after a massive explosion killed/injured at least two dozen people in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. Today, the American National Standards Institute maintains the codes: red means electrical, orange signals telecommunications, yellow identifies combustive materials, pink is for “temporary markings, unidentified facilities, or known unknowns,” and so on. Though not hidden but generally unnoticed, these markings are, by design, meant to make our communities safer.

The authors also explore how regulations may influence everyday design. Perhaps this is best seen in architectural landscapes. For example, the British government once implemented an individual brick tax, thereby causing manufacturers to create larger bricks or builders to use other building materials. A similar window tax, again in Britain, caused people to board up or otherwise cover up their windows. The effects of these taxes can still be seen (or, as in the case of the windows, hidden) today.

Planned failures (e.g. breakaway posts), municipal flags, inflatable figures, towers, foundations, graveyards, water, technology, illumination, property markers, manhole covers, and so much more are covered within the covers of this book. The 99% Invisible City is everyday design presented and written about in an extraordinary manner. What’s more, it’s all remarkably illustrated by Patrick Vale. Though “for all you plaque readers and curious urbanists” is inscribed on the title page, this book has something for everyone. Check it out!

As always, happy reading.

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How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

I fancy sending and receiving mail: cards, letters, mail art, packages, and postcards. I delight even in receiving unsolicited consumer catalogs and other junk mail that make for great collage material. In a word, mail is fun. At its inception, however, what came to be our country’s postal service wasn’t meant for fun, but for a “secure, independent communications network so that [our country’s co-founders] could talk treason and circulate the latest news without fear of arrest.”

Readers interested in the history of the United States Postal Service or the history of the founding of America will find Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America: A History fascinating. Throughout the book, Gallagher draws parallels between the development of the postal system and that of our country, illustrating that one could not have happened without the other.

In addition to needing a way to “talk treason,” our forefathers desired a way to disseminate information to the public in post-Revolutionary America. Prior to this time, mail, which was then the only means of remote communication, was a privilege rather than the given that it is today. Those who lacked access to this communication network also lacked access to information. The postal service was increasingly relied upon as a means to educate the public about our country’s development and encourage their participation. Newspapers are among the first materials to be mailed to the masses. In fact, it was common for printers to double as postmasters. The distribution of newspapers via the postal service helped democratize access to information similar to how the post democratized access to communication.

But it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Gallagher expounds on the challenges that beleaguered the post. Transportation, for example. The earliest mail carriers were post riders. Men, usually, though not always, who carried the post on horseback and rode tirelessly to their destinations or to hand the mail off to their relay (not unlike a relay race). This was especially dangerous in a mostly unsettled country thick with uncertainty and thin, at best, with the infrastructure required to carry out the service.

Post roads were mapped to connect the country, as well as to shape its settlement. Mail was increasingly delivered by stagecoach (so called because it would stop at various intervals, or stages, along the way). By 1813, Congress authorized steamers to carry mail and, in 1823, “all waterways” were declared post roads. The development of the postal service is closely tied to that of the railroad with a sort of public-private partnership that led to the Railway Mail Service, which, until aviation came along, was the most efficient method of transporting the mail. According to Gallagher (and she makes a great case), the postal service single-handedly supported the aviation industry by subsidizing its infrastructure.

Transportation wasn’t the mail’s only challenge, however. Another was safety. Not only that of postal employees, but of the mail itself. Especially during the post rider, stagecoach, and railway days, it was not uncommon for the mail to be stolen. When mail traveled via railway it did so in wooden train cars that were placed behind the engine car, which meant that it was susceptible to fire, endangering both employees and the mail.

Finances were yet another challenge. In the early days of the American postal service, it was not the sender who paid for personal correspondence, but the recipient. One went to the post office (because that was the only option prior to home delivery) and asked for their letters and paid only for those that they wished to receive. Not surprisingly, this was costly. Not to mention the accumulation of unwanted letters, which ended up in the Dead Letter Office (an interesting destination and story in and of itself).

The postal service did more than overcome challenges, though. It changed America’s social landscape. During the Victorian era, letter-writing became extremely popular, especially among women. So much so that post offices installed separate windows for women to pick up their correspondence so as to keep aligned with that era’s social mores (i.e. to keep the women from the men, especially because, at that time, post offices could also double as places of vice). Books about the etiquette of writing letters abounded and stamp lockets, a locket containing stamps worn on a chain around the neck, became popular, as did stamp collecting.

In her final chapter, she examines the postal service’s missed opportunity to provide the Internet as a non-profit public service rather than our current privatized for-profit system. When considering how different access to electronic communication and information might look had the post prepared for a digital future, she imagines: “They would have insisted that every post office in America become a neighborhood media hub equipped with a bank of computers that enable citizens to go online for little or no expense–a service now provided by more than sixty nations around the world, to say nothing of America’s own public libraries, where people que up or take a number for online access.”

These considerations have merit. After all, the postal service and the Internet are not unlike one another. Both came about to fulfill the need for remote communication and the dissemination of information, while helping to democratize access in the process. Interestingly, public perception of both has been, at times, similar. To wit: It was feared that mail order catalogs and buying/selling goods through the mail would destroy local businesses much like it’s feared that buying/selling goods online will do the same.

Gallagher details America’s long, winding postal road with an intriguing history that spans two centuries while skillfully supporting her claim that the post office created America. In the final words of her afterward, “Whither the Post,” Gallagher encourages us “to reflect on what the post has accomplished over the centuries and what it could and should contribute in the years to come” before deciding its future. To state it simply, reading this title has only strengthened my opinion that, too often, our postal service is taken for granted.

As always, happy reading.

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