- Historic Sites
A Zip Through History
The U.S. Post Office, 1775-1974
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
We recognize a modern adaptation of the Greek historian in the post-office motto, a city block long, carved above the entrance to the General Post Office in New York City: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
From the time of Augustus the Romans had a postal relay system, called the cursus publicus , and their stations were called posts, from the Latin positus , which is the past participle of ponere and means “placed.” Nothing faster appeared for nineteen hundred years. In March, 1861, the famous pony express of the American West carried Lincoln’s first inaugural address sixteen hundred miles in seven days and eighteen hours, about the same speed that the Persian riders attained in 480 B.C. During the Dark Ages there is almost no indication of postal activity except that it is known Charlemagne had royal couriers. With the revival of civilization in the Middle Ages private mail services appeared, the messengers carrying small metal bags, probably of mesh; hence the term “mail.”
The English system, precursor of our own, dates back at least to Edward iv in the time of the Wars of the Roses but was usually employed only in emergencies. Henry vin established a royal post, and successive rulers enlarged its functions while restricting private enterprise in the maildelivery field. Cromwell strengthened the monopoly still further for the same historic reasons cited by sovereigns—to prevent “many dangerous and wicked designs … against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth.…” In the eighteenth century England introduced the mail coach (which also transported passengers) and the “farming” of the conveyance of mail to private contractors. The principle of mail delivery as a governmental monopoly, the use of postmarks, rates set according to the number of sheets in a letter and the distance travelled, the dubious proposition that a postal service should turn a profit—all were a part of the postal experience passed on to the American colonists.
In the seventeenth century sea captains in England about to voyage to America gave notice of the fact and placed a bag for the collection of letters in one of the coffee houses. On the day of sailing the bag was closed and put aboard ship. But when the vessel arrived in a colonial port, there was no one whose duty it was to take charge. Many letters were misdelivered or not delivered at all, despite the penny that the shipmaster was entitled to receive for each letter. “I know not,” Roger White, one of the English Separatists in Holland, wrote to William Bradford at Plymouth Plantation, “whether this will ever come to your hands, or miscarrie, as other my letters have done….”
To remedy this situation the General Court of Massachusetts passed an ordinance in 1639 that all incoming letters should be delivered to the tavern kept in Boston by Richard Fairbanks, who received a penny for each and engaged that they would be delivered. The bag was open to all and could, of course, be tampered with. It was also provided that Fairbanks would dispatch letters posted at his ordinary for inclusion with the sea mail. Monopolies were then in bad odor, and it was laid down carefully that “no man shall bee compelled to bring his letters thither except hee please.” No provision was made for domestic letters. For intercolony contacts, which were few, private letters were put in the hands of merchants or chance travellers. For mail within a colony correspondents depended upon travelling friends and often used a reliable Indian. John Endkott, for example, writing to John Winthrop on April i3, 1638, explained: “Your Kind lines I receaved by Mascanomet.” And again on April 27, 1650: “I resavid yours by the Indian.” It was all very chancy, Indians or otherwise.
Various efforts were made by the royal governors to connect the colonies for the transmission of official letters because of the military menace of the French and Indians and the war with the Dutch. None was conspicuously successful, and none of the riders on public business was authorized to carry private mail until after England’s Revolution of 1688, when William and Mary granted an exclusive twenty-oneyear patent to Thomas Neale, a court favorite who held a number of sinecures. In exchange for this potentially rich farming operation (which in fact never did show a profit) Neale was required only to remit to the Exchequer six shillings and eight pence annually at the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel.