Updated October 10, 2001    
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From the POSTAL RECORD, Vol. 114, No. 2, February 2001:

Mail through the Millennia, part 2

  Carriers help forge an American institution
as mail service binds a new nation together

01-01 coverIn 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 right—thanks 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 Franklin’s 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 we’ll wrap up this historical survey with some highlights of America’s 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 nation’s 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 doesn’t begin to cover the many innovations in mail processing and other technology that Americans have contributed to the world’s 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 nation’s 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 Great Britain.

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 transportation.)
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 letters–envelopes 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.

Postal war
in blue & gray

The Civil War has had a lot of attention but the consequences for—and responses of—the Post Office Department haven’t 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 stamps—essentially Post Office IOU’s—were 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 consequence—people began to “clean” their stamps to reuse them as change, prompting postal officials to seek better inks and tougher cancellers to better “kill” stamps.

Postage currency remained in use until 1876 and the practice of using stamps for small mail-order transactions persisted into the 1930s.

It’s 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 Suspended.”

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had a particularly bitter war experience. In July 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s raiders staged an attack that brought them to the outskirts of Washington, where they burned Blair’s 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 printed matter).

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 delivery."

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 cargo.

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 carriers.

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.


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