the 225 years since the American revolution, the postal system
in the United States has become the greatest in history, not only
in size and scope, but also in the ability to get the job done
rightthanks in large measure to the men and women of the
NALC who deliver the mail every day.
Along with their brothers and sisters in the other postal crafts,
city letter carriers are the backbone of an American institution
that has grown with the nation, stretching across the land along
footpaths and trails, streets and highways and rail lines, reaching
every village and hamlet, touching the lives of every citizen.
This proud tradition reaches back through time in a direct line
that runs from the buckskin-clad post riders of Benjamin Franklins
day to the Barefoot Mailmen of 19th century Florida, right up
to the park-and-loop carriers of today with trays of DPS in their
brand-new Flexible Fuel Vehicles.
Last month, in the first installment of Mail through the
Millennia, we reviewed the evolution of mail systems from
their initial role as military, administrative or commercial communications
networks for the ruling classes. Late in the 18th century, the
idea that the post could be used to spread ideas among
free citizens began to take hold, particularly in the North American
colonies of Great Britain.
This month well wrap up this historical survey with some
highlights of Americas postal past. A couple of general
points to bear in mind: Until about the middle of the 19th century
most postal work in the United States was done by contractors.
The Post Office Department contracted with stage coach lines,
river boats, railroads and ocean-going sail ships and steamers
to transport the mail from city to city. In most towns, only the
postmaster and one or two clerks who handled funds were on the
government payroll. Everyone else was hired (and fired) by the
postmaster personally and paid by him out of postage received
and, in the case of letter carriers, the charges they personally
collected for deliveries.
That began to change in 1863, when free city delivery was instituted
in 49 cities. City carriers were put on the payroll, and more
clerks were hired to help prepare mail. The need for dependable
transportation within and between cities also meant more people
on the payroll, working in railway post offices and later in motor
pools, maintenance facilities and the like.
Also, historically government postal services were seen as money-makers
and that was true in the United States until the 1840s, when attitudes
shifted after the Post Office became a separate institution.
In 1844, a U.S. Postal Commission reported to Congress that the
postal service was created to render the citizen worthy,
by proper knowledge and enlightenment, of his important privileges
as a sovereign constituent of his government... elevating our
people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together
in patriotic affection. In short, the panel said, the post
office was a vital public service and should be maintained, no
matter what the cost, to help the nations citizens stick
together as Americans.
Writing 125 years later, Congress declared in the Postal Reorganization
Act of 1970: The United States Postal Service shall be a
basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government
of the United States.... [It] shall have as its basic function
the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together
through the personal educational, literary, and business correspondence
of the people....
While this survey doesnt begin to cover the many innovations
in mail processing and other technology that Americans have contributed
to the worlds postal culture, as we enter the new millennium
The Postal Record hopes it gives NALC members some fresh perspective
on the important role their work plays in maintaining the fabric
of our nations daily life.
Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin, picked by the Continental
Congress to launch the new nation's mail service, gives up the
position in November to become envoy to France, where he pursues
diplomacy and young ladies with equal zest. His son-in-law Richard
Bache takes over the top postal position in the fledgling United
States of America, only four months into its revolution against
With the revolution won, Congress passes the Ordinance of 18 October,
an extensive revision of postal laws proposed by PMG Ebenezer
Hazard; it broadens Congress's exclusive authority over mail within
the United States to cover post routes within individual states--asserting,
if not actually establishing, a monopoly. In keeping with a Don't-Tread-on-Me
attitude, mail censorship is limited to time of war or when specifically
ordered by the president or Congress. (In Europe, authorities
routinely opened and read mail in transit.)
Under the newly ratified Constitution, "Congress shall have
Power...to establish Post Offices and post Roads." That particular
item comes right after the power to print money and just before
the authority to punish piracy on the high seas. (Ultimately,
Congress stretches the language to cover virtually all forms of
When President George Washington appointed George Osgood as postmaster
general, there were just 75 post offices in the new nation and
2,000 miles of post road from Maine to Florida. By 1799, 16,000
miles of post road had been established.
As President Thomas Jefferson prepares to leave office in March
1809 he considers using the postal surplus to pay off the national
debt, including the final few dollars of the Louisiana Purchase,
but decides against that bit of political showmanship. The 1803
purchase from cash-strapped Napoleon added 800,000 square miles
to the nation, and PMG Gideon Granger's surveyors wasted no time
in starting to lay out post roads to serve the new territory.
The first "road" blazed to New Orleans was just four
feet wide--not much different than a modern residential sidewalk.
Despite road improvements that make stagecoaches practical and
the growing use of steamboats, horseback remains the most basic
way of getting the mail and newspapers to the western frontier.
Post rider Samuel Lewis, whose "route" was between Cincinnati
and Chillicothe, Ohio was struck in the head by a floating log
while simultaneously fording a stream, swimming with his mailbag
and leading his horse. His postmaster reports that "several
days were lost" while Lewis lay unconscious on the stream
bank, then tracked down his horse and recovered the mail bag downstream.
Congress passes a law declaring it has authority over all inland
steamboats that carry U.S. mail, meaning all rivers those boats
travel on amount to post roads. In 1838, using similar reasoning,
railroads are declared "post roads," too.
President Andrew Jackson, bringing the "spoils" system
into American political life in a serious way, makes the postmaster
general a full member of the president's cabinet--after getting
rid of the incumbent PMG and installing his own choice. Virtually
every postmaster in the nation is replaced, and the new ones in
turn contract with political cronies to transport and deliver
the mails. In addition to the new political flavor, the Post Office
Department now stands on its own with the federal bureaucracy;
up until that time, the postal service was a part of the Treasury.
The eastern Pony Express goes into operation east of the Mississippi,
24 years before its glamorous western cousin. A letter delivered
by standard means from New York to New Orleans--by stagecoach
and river boat-- might take 13 or 14 days, but express riders
could carry a notice about prices on the New Orleans cotton exchange
to a New York trader in 6 days, 17 hours.
Private express companies--the inspiration for the "Private
Express Statutes" limiting letter-mail competition so prominent
in modern debates over postal reform--were emerging as a threat
to the finances of the U.S. Mail. Individual post riders, stagecoach
drivers, and even traveling salesmen long had defied the government's
supposed monopoly on private mail, but in the late 1830s, private
companies began offering "express" intercity mail delivery
with door-to-door service. By 1844, more than 40 companies were
operating in the Boston area alone. Eventually, they began to
deliver within cities as well, eating into postal revenues.
A private express company in New York founded by Alexander Greig
issues the first adhesive postage stamp in the United States to
prepay postage; it also places boxes around the city for deposit
of letters. It even offers a registry service for letters with
valuable contents--something the Post Office doesn't provide.
The stamps are three cents each, or $2.50 per hundred, for deliveries
in the city. (For the same service, the Post Office charged six
cents per sheet for lettersenvelopes were not yet in use--plus
an additional two cents paid to the carrier for delivery to the
door.) By July, Greig's carriers are delivering 450 letters a
day, while government carriers were handling about 250. The postmaster
of New York got permission from Washington to buy out Greig's
operation and merged it into his own government operation.
Exasperated after a generation of spoils system incompetence,
Congress orders a massive review of the Post Office in 1844 and
passes comprehensive reform legislation in 1845 to overhaul rates
and procedures. It is the duty of the service, lawmakers conclude,
to elevate "our people in the scale of civilization and [bring]
them together in patriotic affection."
To help achieve this, the so-called cheap postage law of 1845
toughens the monopoly language and service is modernized. Letters
are charged by weight, not number of sheets of paper--a "single"
letter weighed up to one-half ounce. It cost five cents to send
a letter up to 300 miles; 10 cents to send it farther. The two-cent
carrier fee for delivery remained in effect. Carriers were not
government employees, but worked under the supervision of postmasters
and were paid from postage fees and from delivery charges, which
they were responsible for collecting.
|Frederick Wolf was appointed
a carrier in Troy, NY in 1854 and served for 54 years.
Congress approves the first U.S. adhesive postage stamps. The
first five- cent stamp features Benjamin Franklin, the first 10-cent
is George Washington. Between the 1845 rate change and 1847, many
postmasters used special handstamps or "provisional"
adhesive stamps. When rates changed again in 1851, the 1847 stamps
became invalid, but patrons were given the chance to redeem unused
stamps for the new issue. The combination of lower postage rates
and the convenience of stamps spurred a dramatic increase in use
of the mails by average citizens. Volume more than doubled between
1845-1849, from 38 million pieces to 81 million, and revenues
shot upward. For the first time in a decade, the Post Office showed
a profit in 1848.
In January, as word reaches San Francisco of the discovery
of gold at Sutter's mill, the California arrives in the harbor,
the first U.S. Mail steamship to pass through the Golden Gate.
All hands jump ship in search of riches, delaying the return dispatch
for mail to the East Coast. In April 1849, the Oregon, whose crew
had been kept aboard by force, left San Francisco for Panama,
where it transferred mail for the overland trip across the Isthmus
to the Caribbean, thence on to New York.
Prepayment of mail matter becomes compulsory. Until this
time, if a patron refused to accept a letter, the carrier--who
might have walked miles to attempt delivery--would have labored
in vain. The same legislation established registered mail.
The western Pony Express first offers service April 3, 1860 and,
by prior agreement, goes out of business October 26, 1861 with
the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt
Lake City. The private venture, operated independently under government
contract, lost an estimated $500,000 in its brief existence. In
addition to the "young, skinny, wiry fellows" sought
by ads to ride the ponies, the express also included stage coach
lines through more civilized sections of its "route."
Its fastest delivery was carrying President Abraham Lincoln's
March 1861 inaugural address from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento,
California in 7 days, 17 hours.
in blue & gray
Civil War has had a lot of attention but the consequences
forand responses ofthe Post Office Department
havent been nearly so widely discussed.
When the Confederacy was declared in early 1861, there were
about 9,000 post offices in the seceding states. Post Office
officials moved quickly to demonetize existing
postage and thus denying the South the value of those stamps.
Existing stampsessentially Post Office IOUswere
declared invalid in phases as new stamps were printed and
stocks in northern post offices were replaced. In the north,
citizens could turn in old stamps for new, but all U.S.
postage in the rebel states was worthless.
Stamps were important for more than the mail in the north.
Because of a shortage of small change, Congress in 1862
approved the use of stamps as currency. This led to an unexpected
consequencepeople began to clean their
stamps to reuse them as change, prompting postal officials
to seek better inks and tougher cancellers to better kill
Postage currency remained in use until 1876 and the practice
of using stamps for small mail-order transactions persisted
into the 1930s.
Its interesting that the Post Office pointed out to
Congress its considerable financial loss due
to the number of mail sacks behind Confederate lines when
hostilities broke out, but was happy to report savings on
its new stamp-printing contracts covered it.
In conjunction with the creation of free city delivery during
the war, the Railway Mail Service was instituted in March
1864, placing clerks on trains to sort letters and other
mail en route between cities, thus speeding deliveries by
as much as 24 hours.
Later that year, Postal Money Orders were created to allow
citizens to send money to soldiers, or soldiers to send
money home, without the risk of sending currency itself.
The system proved so popular that it is still in use.
Although no regular mail was exchanged between north and
south, both sides agreed early on that letters from prisoners
of war would be permitted free passage. In the north, tens
of thousands of letters addressed to Confederate states
were sent to the Dead Letter office. Foreign mail bound
for Confederate states was returned with the notation Service
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had a particularly bitter
war experience. In July 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal Earlys
raiders staged an attack that brought them to the outskirts
of Washington, where they burned Blairs family home
to the ground. Blair denounced several top Union generals
as cowards for not stopping the attack and ultimately President
Lincoln demanded his resignation.
The declaration of the Confederacy and the subsequent Civil
War has a dramatic impact on the Post Office along with the rest
of American society and government. The South struggles to maintain
mail service, but is hamstrung and isolated, cut off from foreign
mails by the Union blockade. In the North, postal officials not
only make strategic decisions related to the war effort but also
continue seeking way to improve service (see box at right).
In an action that creates the modern city letter carrier craft,
the Post Office Department begins to provide free city delivery
of mail effective July 1, 1863 in every city with more than 50,000
people. On that date, 449 letter carriers began walking the streets
of 49 cities. These carriers are paid a salary by the government--no
longer did they depend on the delivery charges they could collect
from patrons, although hiring and firing is still a matter of
politics and personal connections. The 1863 law also sets a uniform
letter rate of 3 cents regardless of distance and established
three classes of mail--First Class (letters), Second (newspapers
and magazines), and Third (circulars, books and miscellaneous
Post cards (first used in Austria in 1869) are authorized for
the U.S. mail in the spring.
A major reform of the "franking" privilege cracks down
on abuses by government officials, who were now required to use
special stamps or pre-printed envelopes rather than their signatures
to send mail. The "free frank" was created in 1776 to
ensure federal officials could communicate with the people back
home about governmental matters. One instance that helped provoke
the reform was a member of Congress who sent his horse home to
West Virginia by declaring it a "government document"
and signing the animal's bridle.
The first international postal congress convenes in Berne, Switzerland
in September, 1874 and draws up a treaty to establish international
mail rates and standardize the exchange of mail among nations.
The General Postal Union (soon renamed the Universal Postal Union)
is quickly joined by virtually every country.
The first Civil Service law, the Pendleton Act, begins to clean
up the spoils system. Letter carriers and clerks in larger offices
must pass competitive exams to be hired and cannot be fired for
political reasons. Under an 1879 law, the two grades of letter
carriers in larger post offices are paid salaries of $800 or $1,000
per year based on years of service; in smaller offices, where
the spoils system still prevails, wages are limited to $850, regardless
of years of service.
Some Washington, DC letter carriers, noting that federal employees--
including those at Post Office Department headquarters--are allowed
30 days vacation (without pay) a year, decide to test their Pendleton
Act protection and petition for the same leave provision. They
get an angry response--letter carriers are supposed to work 365
days a year. Letter carriers from around the country, who earlier
had battled for and won the eight-hour day, go to Congress and
after a great struggle win legislation granting a 15-day vacation
with pay every year! (It's not the last time the Post Office says
"no" to letter carriers and finds itself paying even
more in the end.)
At the invitation of the Milwaukee Letter Carriers Association--one
of a number of local letter carrier associations organized in
the 1870s and 1880s--about 60 carriers from 18 states meet in
a room above Schaefer's saloon in the Wisconsin city and vote
to create the National Association of Letter Carriers. (The Post
Office Department reacted harshly to the news, singling out NALC
activists for discipline and dismissal. Undaunted, carriers continued
to organize and with the support of the NALC filed suit against
the government in 1891 for violation of the ight-hour law. In
1893, the Supreme Court awarded letter carriers $3.5 million in
overtime claims against the Department.)
In the latest effort to speed the movement of mail, a "Railway
Post Office" on the new electrified streetcar line in St.
Louis collects mail and drops it off, with pouching, canceling,
and distribution both to carrier routes and substations. Other
cities had similar arrangements, with one operating in Pittsburgh
as late as 1917, and the last streetcar RPO going out of service
in Baltimore in 1929.
The first pneumatic tube system for transporting mail is installed
under the streets of Philadelphia. Tube systems eventually also
were in use in Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago and St. Louis.
At its high point in 1915, the total system involved nearly 57
miles of tube. As late as 1949 the tube system was hailed as "a
miraculous means of expediting the mail," but the last leg
in New York was shut down December 31, 1953.
Also in 1893, the first commemorative U.S. postage stamps are
issued in connection with the World Columbian Exposition held
in Chicago. The series of stamps, eventually numbering 16, marked
the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World and
ranged from 1 cent to $5 in value.
The number of post offices passed 70,000 in 1895 and the nation's
population topped 76 million but free delivery was available to
only about 19 million people living in the largest cities--meaning
three-fourths of Americans still had to go to the post office
to collect their mail. That begins to shift in 1896 when an experiment
with Rural Free Delivery begins. The practice spreads slowly but
surely as roads improved and is made permanent in 1902. In 1912,
Village Delivery was instituted, covering another 25 million people
who were not in rural areas but in towns too small for free city
delivery (under 10,000 population).
A three-wheel Indian motorcycle van--a close cousin to an ice-cream
vendor's cart--is tested in Washington, DC for mail letter box
collections, one of hundreds of Post Office transportation experiments,
from horse- drawn wagons to screen-parcel trucks to Harley-Davidsons
with sidecars, to speed the mails within cities.
Three American mail clerks go down with the Titanic while serving
in the Sea Post Service with two British clerks aboard the luxury
liner providing transatlantic mail service.
The range of postal services we know today is essentially completed
on January 1, 1913 with the establishment of Parcel Post service.
Combined with RFD, Parcel Post transformed the backwoods, making
the Sears, Roebuck catalog and other "wish books" virtual
Bibles for farmers and opening a world of consumer possibilities
to generations of Americans. Parcel Post also is boosted by another
new postal service begun in 1913--C.O.D., or "collect on
Postal regulations require city residents to have letter receptacles.
Up until this time, letter carriers were required to knock on
doors, use whistles, or just plain holler for patrons' attention
to make deliveries.
The Post Office began experimenting with air mail in 1911, but
the first scheduled service is inaugurated May 15, 1918 with a
series of comical miscues. With President Wilson looking on, the
pilot trying to leave Washington for New York couldn't start his
plane; it was out of gas. Once off the ground, he headed the wrong
way. Discovering his error, he turned, but his propeller broke
and he crashed. To top it off, the commemorative stamp issued
to mark the event shows the airplane--a Curtiss JN-H4 "Jenny"--upside
down. It is one of the most famous and valuable philatelic mistakes.
By February 1921, mail was flown day and night, virtually non-stop,
from San Francisco to New York--without instruments--stopping
only for fuel and to change pilots, sometimes at dirt airstrips
lighted by bonfires. Impressed, Congress voted $1.25 million to
expand airmail service, especially ground facilities. As with
other forms of transportation, mail was vital to the development
of the aviation industry.
The Post Office boomed through the Roaring Twenties like the rest
of America and, similarly, crashed into the Great Depression.
Huge deficits piled up and cost-cutting was paramount, but postal
employees were envied--Civil Service jobs were secure and government
paychecks were steady, although postal employees were forced to
endure two unpaid "furloughs" that amounted to pay cuts.
The massive WPA public works programs often included post offices;
201 new ones were begun in 1933 alone.
In an effort to marry Buck Rogers adventurism with philately,
a group of stamp collectors persuade postal officials in the United
States and Mexico to initiate "rocket mail" across the
Rio Grande. On July 2, three seven-foot rockets are launched across
the river from McAllen, Texas carrying letters bearing special
stamps hand-canceled "Dispatched by rocket mail." One
explodes on liftoff; a second crashes into a saloon, and stunned
patrons turn the wreckage over to local police; the third lands
more or less where planned--but Mexican customs officials impound
The first Highway Post Office bus pulls into the White House driveway.
The rolling post offices, operated by contractors but staffed
by Post Office Department employees, collected, sorted and distributed
mail along regular routes not served by rail lines. The idea was
to mirror the train- board service that from the 1840s to the
1960s accelerated the processing of mail as it moved between American
cities. Railway mail service effectively ended in 1972 (one route
operated until 1977), and the last Highway Post Office pulled
off the road in 1974.
"V-mail" was the unusual solution the Post Office comes
up with to preserve precious cargo space and still handle the
huge volume of mail destined for U.S. forces overseas during World
War II. Each letter, written on a special sheet, was opened at
the post office, censored, and reduced into a smaller image on
film. This way 37 mail sacks could be cut down to one. At the
other end, the films could be enlarged and the letters delivered
in legible size.
After a string of substantial deficits in the post-war years,
Postmaster General Jesse Donaldson cuts residential deliveries
to once a day and most business deliveries to twice as day. This
dramatically changes the job of letter carriers, who instead of
returning to the office for an hour or 90 minutes for lunch and
to sort mail for their second delivery, will now remain on the
street. Lunch is cut to a half hour.
Cushman Corporation delivers a four-wheel prototype of its "mailster"
for testing in Miami, Florida. Ultimately, the Post Office settles
on an endearing if dangerous three-wheeled version and orders
more than 30,000 of them from four manufacturers to put city carriers
on wheels. Between 1950 and the turn of the century, carriers
drive a variety of Jeeps, sit-or-stand vans, LLVs, FFVs, and who-knows-what's-next
to deliver the mail.
The Navy submarine U.S.S. Barbero fires a guided missile carrying
3,000 letters toward the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport,
Florida. "Before man reaches the moon," one official
was quoted as saying, "mail will be delivered within hours
from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia
by guided missiles." Although the missile reached its destination,
wiser heads prevailed before postal missiles began raining down
on major U.S. cities.
In September, the Detroit Post Office becomes the most thoroughly
"mechanized" facility in the United States. Throughout
the 50s, postal officials have been focusing technology on sorting
and moving the mail more efficiently. The Detroit plant has 28
letter sorting machines, each with 12 keyboards, sorting to about
2,000 cities; five "facer-cancellers," cancelling 30,000
letters an hours and arranging (facing) them address side up;
eight parcel sorting machines, handling 20,000 parcels an hour;
two sack sorting machines, handling 6,000 sacks per hour; and
20 miles of conveyors moving items between floors.
President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, making management
recognition of postal unions mandatory. In a subsequent election,
NALC is selected as the exclusive bargaining agent for city letter
ZIP codes are introduced on July 1; work begins in November on
electronic equipment to recognize the five-digit Zone Improvement
Plan designations and sort mail with them (you know the rest).
Wildcat strike by letter carriers begins in New York City and
spreads across country. The resulting Postal Reorganization Act
of 1970 creates the U.S. Postal Service as it exists today.