One of the oldest federal institutions in the country, the Post Office is as American as apple pie. Originally intended as a method to ensure communication between the colonies and Britain, the post office has evolved and expanded right along with the nation itself.
So this week I am diving into the history of the post office. When was it started? How was it changed over the years? And is it something we still need?
Gallagher, Winifred. “A Brief History of the United States Postal Service.” The Smithsonian Magazine. October 2020. (LINK)
Gallagher, Winifred. How the Post Office Created America: A History. United States: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017.
“United States Postal Service Delivers the facts.” United States Postal Service. July 2020. (LINK)
U.S. Congress. House. An Act to modernize the postal service, to reorganize the Post Office Department, and for other purposes. HR 17070. Introduced August 12, 1970. (LINK)
“Wells and Fargo start a shipping and banking company.” History.com Editors. History. March 16, 2021. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
In our current digital age, many may be unaware of the impact and legacy of one of the oldest federal institutions in the United States - the post office. If you watch the news then you may be briefly familiar with the ongoing fights over post office funding and arguments by commentators as to whether the post office should be self supporting. Ironically enough, these are not new arguments.
Originally established and maintained by past episode subject Benjamin Franklin, the United States Postal Service has, like the country itself, evolved and expanded throughout the last several centuries.
So this week, I am diving into the history of the post office. How did it originate? What role has it played in the developing country? And in an era of digital two day shipping, is it a relic of the past?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, the United States has had some form of mail service since before there was a quote unquote United States. In the colonies since before the revolution, the earliest version of the post was mainly established to ensure messages were transmitted between the colonies and mother country, England. The system was fragmented, much like the colonies themselves, and while there were paths used as post roads up and down the eastern seaboard, the primary intent of the position of Post Masters General was to ensure safe communication across the Atlantic.
Generals were often printers and, given the fringe benefits of the positions, printers generally sought postmaster positions. Not only did they enjoy franking privileges, or the ability to send their parcels free of charge, but postmasters also often were the first to receive news and got the scoop of potential printing contracts up for grabs. And, as printers were often in the business of newspapers, they also enjoyed shipping their papers far and wide for free, giving them a leg up on any other printer who wasn’t in a similar position.
A printer himself, Franklin also enjoyed use of these privileges, though he endeavored to not be seen as taking advantage of the perk, often denying his family’s requests to frank parcels and packages. He also made one rather important adjustment; all news journals would be shipped for the same rate. While this improved the business of journalism within the country, it didn’t necessarily hurt Franklin to make this change as he had already earned his fortune and was not reliant on any income that generated from his newspaper.
But leveling the shipping costs wasn’t his only edit. Ever the thinker and tinkerer, Franklin frequently traveled the paths used as post roads to uncover any deficiencies and to determine whether there was a streamlined approach available. He succeeded in his mission, eventually cutting mail’s travel time between New York and Philadelphia from weeks to hours. However, despite his vast improvements to the mail routes within the colonies, many residents did not avail themselves of the luxury of sending letters or parcels.
And luxury it was. Given its original intent, mail was quite expensive within the colonies, making it too expensive for a majority of citizens to take advantage of. Most relied on friends as couriers to help deliver their messages as they were unable to pay the high costs associated with what was then referred to as the Crown’s Colonial Post. Of course, if you know your American history at all, then you know the tensions over forced costs was only going to get worse when parliament passed the Stamp Act.
The act was not about postage of course. Now, instead of paying high fees for postage, something colonists could and often did avoid by using friends and family as free couriers, they faced a forced tax on many of their everyday, unavoidable goods. This, in addition to several other factors, led to their break with the crown and the American Revolution. I covered the revolution in a prior episode, so be sure to check the early catalog if you want to learn more.
Despite their break with the Crown, the colonists knew the importance of regularly delivered mail. Given their situation, it was now even more dire to ensure the transportation of messages between the colonies. Framers saw the mail as such an important part of their ability to communicate with each other that the Continental Congress officially established their own version of the post, originally calling it the Constitutional Post, before deciding on the Postal Department of the United States.
As you hopefully remember, the colonies ultimately outlasted the booming British empire and were left to their own devices. They met again, this time to determine what shape their new government would take. One of the biggest challenges to delivering the mail was, of course, having accessible roadways on which to get from place to place. Under the first draft of our government, the Articles of Confederation mostly maintained this decentralized notion, thereby eliminating any central authority who could fund and otherwise provide for consistent roadways. This was fixed when the framers met to craft draft two, carving out specifically Congress’ authority to quote, “establish post offices and post roads,” end quote.
And that they did. Despite various issues, by 1790 there were nearly seventy-five post offices and 1,875 miles of post road. As the country expanded, so too did the postal system. Throughout the frontier as colonists made their way west they sought to maintain their ties back home. Regional post offices made that a possibility. As Alexis De Tocqueville observed on a visit, quote: “In America one of the first things done in a new state is to have the mail come,” end quote. Not every post office was close, but that didn’t seem to matter to those aching for a word from home as they would make the journey to their closest post office, sometimes traveling days to reach it.
With this expansion came the first of several calls for the post office to be self-supporting. Originating out of a debate about the increasing costs to the newly formed Treasury Department, some government officials, including Alexander Hamilton, argued the system had to devise a way to become profitable and not become a government expense. Others believed the mail was a true equalizer for the nation and provided the country’s citizens an equal opportunity to information. In their eyes, an educated populace was an engaged one and the newly formed country should subsidize this endeavor. The compromise, which was part of the Postal Act of 1792, was the post be self-supporting; and an ongoing argument was born. As I’ll cover, this sentiment did not las long.
Also included in the 1792 bill were punishments for the theft of mail and reinforced the notion that Congress would be the branch to control the establishment of post roads and offices. The post continued to develop new routes and offices and by 1801, there were over 900 post offices and nearly twenty thousand miles of road. And unlike the single use buildings we’re used to visiting today, the original post offices weren’t much of offices at all. As I mentioned, the earliest postmasters were often independent printers who used the post as a kind of side hustle, to borrow from today’s vernacular. This led to many quote unquote post offices being entrenched in other businesses and it wasn’t until the 1850’s they enjoyed standalone buildings.
Brought back into the political fights of the time, the post office - and more specifically, postal employees - became a source of scandal during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. A populist who promised to return the government to the people, Jackson unceremoniously fired postal workers only to replace them with known supporters. This was only exacerbated by the fact that many of these new employees also happened to own newspapers. Not entirely an objective institution during this period anyway, these newly minted postal employees inevitably shared their appreciation to Jackson within the pages of their newspapers. This set a precedent and for the next century, postal employee positions were up to the whims of the party occupying the White House. Jackson also failed to enforce federal law when abolitionists took to mailing their antislavery pamphlets into the south only to have them burned or otherwise destroyed by the regional postmaster.
Trying to meet the demand of an ever growing country, and combating the ongoing competition of private courier services, the post office was failing to generate revenue and was instead seeing massive losses. Congress realized the mail was a public service that deserved ongoing financial support. In another series of laws passed between the 1840’s and 1850’s, Congress threw the postal system a helping hand and instituted a number of improvements aimed at helping the post generate some much needed revenue, including making it illegal for anyone but the post office from using post roads to deliver the mail. It also enacted standardized pricing for mail delivery, introducing America to the stamp in 1847 to the delight of collectors everywhere.
This standardized system of pricing also democratized communications throughout the country. Previously, the post was mainly used as means to transport newspapers and correspondence of government officials. However, with reduced costs, and an increase in basic education, now anyone could send a letter for any reason. No longer were letters reserved for reports of illness or marriage; now sisters could share their daily lives regardless of their distance. Friends could share recipes. And historians everywhere could rejoice in the dearth of primary material available.
As technology developed, so too did the speed and method of mail delivery. In the post’s early days, mail was transported by single riders on horses or mules carrying satchels of correspondence. Eventually, stagecoaches were leveraged to help transport bulk mail, giving single riders a much needed break and of course I must mention the illustrious railroad who greatly increased the speed of delivery. Much like today, though the post office had a monopoly on official post roads, entrepreneurs were always looking for ways to get in on the action.
In 1852, Henry Wells and William Fargo collaborated to launch Wells Fargo, a joint shipping and banking venture. In the middle of the California Gold Rush, Wells and Fargo saw an opportunity to cash in on the demand for transcontinental shipping and contracting with independent stagecoaches, created a system of coast to coast shipping. They understood the desire for the fastest service possible and eventually merged with the notorious Pony Express riders to meet the demand.
The post office and the service it provided, became such a value to the country that when the Civil War broke out in 1861, the confederacy maintained its own separate post given its cut off from the union, or federal, postal services. There was tangible value in the stamps used to send mail, with the Union using postage as a method of currency as their coinage ran low. Though times were tough as the nation was at war with itself, the post office continued to evolve and provide more personalized service for the country. It was during the Civil War, for example, that personal delivery of mail began.
As I’ve mentioned, mail up to this point was delivered to a central office and required citizens to make a trip to their local post to pick up any letters or parcels waiting for them. During the Civil War, however, the postmaster general Montgomery Blair introduced the concept of free city delivery. Tested originally in big cities like New York, free city delivery helped reduce the traffic at the local post offices and created a new federal position that would become another part of the spoils system; the mail carrier. Combating the expected pushback that employing individual postal carriers would be cost prohibitive, Blair made the argument that the convenience of at home delivery would increase the country’s use of the post, thereby practically paying for itself. While this isn’t exactly how it turned out, the argument, along with the lack of southern opposition, led to the creation of thousands of additional positions.
The post office was always looking for ways to be faster and to reach the maximum number of people. At the turn of the twentieth century, the post looked to expand upon the free city delivery model it mastered during the Civil War to those who lived in remote and rural locales. Coined rural free delivery, or RFD, postmaster general John Wanamaker advocated for establishing individual mail delivery in more remote areas. Predominantly in the southern part of the country, Wanamaker advocated this service would bring two benefits: connecting those in rural areas to the rest of the nation and also maintain production of much needed goods as farmers would not have to take time away from their land to journey to the post.
The rural free delivery helped usher in a new era of consumerism for the american public; the home catalog. Individuals like Montgomery Ward began publishing and mailing magazines filled with available products for the house and home. This spawned a series of copycats like Sears and Roebuck who provided a way for americans to buy everything from new fabric for drapes to entire homes.
Though a vital part of the american way of life, the post office remained woefully out of date until after World War II. Though mail had exploded to over thirty eight billion parcels by 1945, most of how the mail was sorted and delivered was still a manual affair. It wasn’t until the Kennedy administration, for example, that the postoffice came up with the zone improvement plan, or zip code as we know it today. This allowed for mail to be sorted into postal zones and specific offices to allow for faster sorting and delivery. This was altered again in 1983 which added four additional digits in an effort the further expedite mail processing.
In 1970, the post office was remade once again with the passage of the Postal Reorganization Act. No longer would the post be a department with a seat in the cabinet. Instead, it would become the United States Postal Service, or USPS and would take on a hybrid-like format of part government institution and part business entity. The reorganization was in response to the postal strike of 1970 from mail carriers who were frustrated over the inadequate pay.
As of 2019, the USPS delivered 143 billion pieces of mail. While we have shifted most of our communications to electronic formats like text messages and emails, the United States Postal Service remains a vital part of the american experience. The post has come under fire in recent years with some in Congress pushing for the post to become an independent, self-sustaining business enterprise. Critics of this plan point to the myriad of services provided to the american public such as ballot delivery and the ability to receive prescription medication at little to no cost. Privatization, they claim, could make vital services beyond the reach of many americans and could decrease access to those who rely on the post the most.
One of the oldest government institutions, the post office, like the nation, has evolved over time. While some may see it is a relic of yesterday, it continues to be an essential part of our infrastructure. Where it goes next is anyone’s guess.
Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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