A Brief History of the United States Postal Service

To forge a nation, the founders needed an efficient communications network

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“The postal service is one of the oldest federal agencies,” says Daniel Piazza, a curator of philately at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. “Maybe for that reason, we tend to take it for granted. But we have always relied on it, whether for news from home, prescription medications or e-commerce.” Levi Mandel

From 1753 to 1774, as he oversaw Britain’s colonial mail service, Benjamin Franklin improved a primitive courier system connecting the 13 fragmented colonies into a more efficient organization that sped deliveries between Philadelphia and New York City to a mere 33 hours. Franklin’s travels along the post roads would inspire his revolutionary vision for how a new nation could thrive independent of Britain. But not even he imagined the pivotal role that the post would play in creating the Republic.

By the early 1770s, Franklin’s fellow patriots had organized underground networks, the Committees of Correspondence and then the Constitutional Post, that enabled the founders to talk treason under the British radar. In 1775, before the Declaration of Independence was even signed, the Continental Congress turned the Constitutional Post into the Post Office of the United States, whose operations became the first—and for many citizens, the most consequential—function of the new government itself.

James Madison and others saw how the post could support this fledgling democracy by informing the electorate, and in 1792 devised a Robin Hood scheme whereby high-priced postage for letters, then sent mostly by businessmen and lawyers, subsidized the delivery of cheap, uncensored newspapers. This policy helped spark America’s lively, disputatious political culture and made it a communications superpower with remarkable speed. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young country, in 1831, the United States boasted twice as many post offices as Britain and five times as many as France. The astonished political philosopher wrote of hurtling through the Michigan frontier in a crude wagon simply called “the mail” and pausing at “huts” where the driver would toss down a bundle of newspapers and letters before hastening along his route. “We pursued our way at full gallop, leaving the inhabitants of the neighboring log houses to send for their share of the treasure.”

Pony Up

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Back when the railroads only went as far west as Missouri, the Pony Express, honored in this 1904 painting, helped cover the missing ground for about a year and a half. Mounted carriers famously sped mail the 1,800 miles from St.  Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in just ten days.

All Aboard

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(National Postal Museum)

This is one of the earliest depictions of a train on a postage stamp, says the Postal Museum's Daniel Piazza. It was issued in 1869, the same year the transcontinental railroad was completed, opening a new era in communication as well as expansion.

Rural Free Delivery: A Lifeline

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(National Postal Museum)

An early instance (circa 1910) of a Rural Free Delivery carrier using an automobile to reach the addresses on his far-flung route. “As the frontier moved westward, the Post Office followed, connecting scattered settlements and territories to the rest of the country and the world,” says Piazza.

Dog Days of Winter

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(National Postal Museum)

During winter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, couriers used dog sleds to deliver mail to Americans in the Alaska Territory. Ed Biederman used this sled to deliver mail across his 160-mile route between Circle and Eagle, Alaska, until he retired in 1935 after a nasty case of frostbite. “The Post Office connected Americans as the nation grew in territory and population throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator in the history department of the National Postal Museum.

Making Bank

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(National Postal Museum)

This box, one of the models that tinsmith Charles Boyer produced in Marengo, Illinois, in the early 20th century, helped rural and frontier carriers fulfill their duty as a kind of traveling post office. Boyer’s ads promised carriers that his boxes would “add dignity to your position” and “make your work easier” by holding up to 500 stamps and 35 money orders. This one belonged to John Goudy, a rural letter carrier from Steuben County, Indiana. When the government launched the Postal Savings System in 1911, all Americans suddenly had access to banking services. “Customers as young as ten years old could hold accounts and had options to accrue savings stamps, certificates of deposit and interest-bearing bonds,” says Heidelbaugh. “The service enabled people, many of whom were without access to banks, to keep their money securely with a federal institution.”

“Neither Snow Nor Rain….”

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(National Postal Museum)

The Postal Service’s unofficial motto, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” has been associated with the Service since the New York City Post Office on 8th Avenue opened in 1914. The phrase comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, describing Persian couriers in the Greek and Persian wars (500-449 BCE). “Despite the dedication to duty, notable disruptions have occurred in the wake of major natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires,” says Heidelbaugh. The National Postal Museum’s collections include mailbox remnants from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California, and from the tornado that struck Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007. “The U.S. Postal Service strives to return to operations as soon as possible by getting mail with funds, medicine and supplies into the hands of customers and helping communities recover,” Heidelbaugh says.

How the Post Office Created America: A History

Winifred Gallagher presents the history of the post office as America’s own story, told from a fresh perspective over more than two centuries. Gallagher argues that now, more than ever before, the imperiled post office deserves this effort, because just as the founders anticipated, it created forward-looking, communication-oriented, idea-driven America.

By the 1840s, though, the post faced a crisis. Average citizens, fed up with high prices—sending a letter more than 150 miles cost around 20 cents, or roughly $6 today—were turning to cheaper private carriers, almost putting the Post Office out of business. In response, Congress converted the post into a public service that no longer had to break even, and in 1845 slashed letter postage to 5 to ten cents, depending on distance.

The post continued to subsidize the nation’s transportation infrastructure. In the East, railroads replaced mounted couriers and stagecoaches. To connect the coasts, the department first financed steamships to carry the mail through the Isthmus of Panama. Then it invested in stagecoaches, which sped the mail from Missouri and Tennessee, where the railroads stopped, to California, enabling vital communications during the gold rush. In 1869, the great transcontinental railroad was completed. The mail was a lifeline connecting Western settlers with loved ones back home.

When the Civil War split America, Montgomery Blair, President Lincoln’s postmaster general, used the savings from suspending service in the Confederacy to upgrade the Union’s mail system. He expanded the Railway Mail Service, authorized the first money orders and began deliveries to urban residences, while the post became the first major institution to employ large numbers of women and African Americans.

The innovations that followed included Rural Free Delivery (1896) and Parcel Post (1913), which brought rural residents into the mainstream. At a time when banks largely ignored the needs of average citizens, the Postal Savings System (1911) provided basic financial services. As World War I engulfed Europe, the Post Office recognized the value of air transport and almost alone supported the aviation industry until the late 1920s.

The boom after World War II doubled the volume of mail even as the cash-starved department racked up big deficits and faced a fiscal crisis recalling that of the 1840s. Alarmed, Congress in 1970 remade the department into the United States Postal Service, a government-business hybrid that has received no tax dollars since 1982 but nonetheless remains subject to congressional oversight. The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act then saddled the service with tens of billions of dollars of debt by requiring that it prefund its retirees’ health benefits.

While the post is once again the subject of controversy, it’s still the federal service that Americans rate most highly, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Apparently unaware that much of the USPS’s business is now parcel delivery, which boosted revenue by $1.3 billion from 2018 to 2019, Jerry Seinfeld recently joked that he couldn’t fathom how a “system based on licking, walking and a random number of pennies” is struggling. Yet in 2020, with Americans isolated by Covid-19, countless folks depend on a system that supplies every address with critical materials, including stimulus checks, ballots and, perhaps soon, medical tests.