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A Zip Through History
The U.S. Post Office, 1775-1974
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
With the USPS handling 90 billion pieces of mail in fiscal 1974 and 164.2 billion in 1993, the service promises its still-suspicious employees great latitude for advancement and is investing, through its statutory borrowing power, in major new postal buildings and new postal technology—advanced handling systems, edgerstacker machines, electronic presorters, optical characterreaders, optical coding and code readers, automatic cullers, and high-speed twelve-position letter-sorting machines. Meanwhile private carriers are springing up all over the nation. The private-express statutes still prohibit them from handling first-class letters, and they cannot use postal patrons’ mail slots or boxes. So they hang plastic bags on doorknobs or nail them to postbox posts. At Hinsdale, Illinois, Common Carriers uses teen-age bike riders, twowheeled successors to the colonial postboys. They deliver advertising fliers for a supermarket, among other customers, at a double saving. The mailer pays less for postage and doesn’t have to address each circular. On Long Island, in New York State, Purolator Courier Corporation sends its trusty couriers slogging through rain, snow, and, of course, gloom of night to deliver medicines, computer data, bank checks, and other documents on a twelve-hour service basis, promising to undercut the government facility by at least i o per cent.
Most of these new postal entrepreneurs operate in a metropolitan area, but there are exceptions like the burgeoning Independent Postal System of America, based in Oklahoma City and headed by aggressive, flamboyant Thomas M. Murray, who has predicted that by 1975 he will have IPSA offices in every hamlet in the United States and Canada and later on the moon. Murray even tried to use his bonded and uniformed carriers to deliver Christmas greetings in 1971 for five cents instead of the then going rate of eight cents, but the National Association of Letter Carriers went into the federal district court at Oklahoma City, sought a permanent injunction, and got it.
Whether the government’s postal monopoly will be tightened, loosened, or left about the same depends upon future decisions. It seems unlikely that Congress will repeal the private-express statutes. The private companies shade prices and offer better service only in the highdensity markets, where volume is heavy and delivery costs low, while the government would be left with those markets where the reverse is true. This would produce staggering deficits with no compensating social gain. The USPS monopoly in first class will doubtless remain firm. But the cost may again go up because the official view is that the demand for first-class letter mail is inelastic as to price It’s like whiskey. In either case there is really no substitute.
There are signs of a new atmosphere in the USPS , more responsiveness to the public’s needs and a turning away from Madison Avenue stunts toward fundamental goals, though the energy crisis, long anticipated by some yet never quite believed in by most, brought in its train new deifficultied for the postal service, along with all the rest of us. Virtually all first-class and preferential mail is still moving by plane, though the number of scheduled flights has been reduced by as much as 10 per cent in 1974l “Non-time-value” mail—second, third, and fourth class—is moving increasingly by train in the form of piggyback shipments—trucks carried on flatbed railroad cars. A few RPO (railroad post office) cars are still in operation, distributing mail en route and once the mainstay of a speedier postal system. But with the rail network now containing more holes than nets, there are no plans at present to expand service in this direction—even though many of these cars stand idle. The postal service’s 224,000 motor vehicles (124,000 owned, operated under contract) drink up about 350,000,000 gallons of fuel under preferential treatment, or postal patrons will be asking some hard questions of our government leadership in Washington about price (ten cents for a letter), service, and priorities.
As “Doctor” James H. Munyon, creator of Munyon’ Kidney Cure, used to say in the early years of this century, —There is Hope!” Perhaps General Klassen will become a national hero by restoring to the postal system the “celebrity, certainty, and security” it had in 1950.