A Zip Through History

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At last I hev it! Finally it come! After five weary trips to Washington, after much weary waitin and much travail, I hev got it. I am now Post Master at Confedrit x Roads, and am dooly installed in my new position. Ef I ever tied any doubts ez to A.Johnson bein a better man than Paul the Apossle, a look at my commission removes it. Ef I ketch myself a feelin that he deserted us onnecessarily five years ago, another look, and my resentment softens into pity. Ef I doubt his Democrisy, I look at that blessed commission, and am reassured, for a President who cood turn out a wounded Federal soldier, and apoint sich a man ez ME , must be above suspicion.

Reality was even cruder. When Grover Cleveland succeeded Chester A. Arthur as President, one Richard Whaling showed such tenacity of office in continuing to occupy the postmastership at Goldman, Arkansas, that a Mr. Turnage shot him for trespassing on government property. “When the next citizen of Goldman visits Washington to present his claims for the Post Office,” the New York Times mused, “he will not be answered with the heartless taunt that there is no vacancy. … [Mr. Turnage] has shown how the technical obstacle to the filling of offices in which vacancies have not occurred may be readily overcome.”

Letter postage remained high into the i84o’s. To send a letter weighing one ounce from New York to Buffalo in 1842 cost one dollar, and the people complained bitterly of the rates. A barrel of flour could be moved from New York City to Portland, Maine, for ten or twelve cents, but a letter cost eighteen cents or more. And the postage for most mail had to be paid in Spanish coin, a scarce specie. There were gross abuses of the franking privilege and many ingenious evasions of the letter postage. In a day when the recipient customarily paid the cost of the letter, many missives were simply refused and found their way to the dead-letter office, which was a further charge on the overhead of the department. Private letter companies sprang up in defiance of the law, and the express business founded by William Francis Harnden offered to carry all letters between New York and Boston for one tenth the price charged by the government. In one legal case James W. Hale, proprietor of a private mail company in New York, who was undercutting the U.S. mail, was acquitted of charges on a very narrow construction of the statute that prohibited his establishing “a horse or foot post”; the Hale mail was moved by steamboat and a vehicle called a railroad car.

Letters and petitions poured in on Congress, and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune thundered about high postage rates until by 1844 cheap postage seemed more important to many congressmen than the annexation of Texas or the reoccupation of Oregon. In 1845 Congress yielded to the demand for reform, reduced substantially the cost of mailing a letter, authorized the use of stamps in 1847, and m 1SoS eliminated entirely the distance factor in calculating the cost. This shift in policy was due largely to a spectacular development in England, where an authentic genius, Rowland Hill, had worked out a fundamental idea through laborious calculations and without ever having been inside a post office. Hill produced a formula that we are apt to think of as an American contribution to economic thought: that low unit cost plus high volume produces net income that the mercantilist chargeall-the-traffic-will-bear theory can never approach. Dragging the British postal bureaucracy kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century, Hill triumphantly vindicated the viability of penny postage. For his tremendous contribution to life and society Hill was made a Knight Commander of the Bath, received an honorary doctorate in civil law from Oxford University, and was buried with national honors in Westminster Abbey. It was the application of Sir Rowland’s concept to the American postal problem that resulted in the elimination of the old zone system, stiffened penalties against private carriers, and the authorization after 1847 of prepayment through the use of stamps, though this was not made obligatory. Also established at this time was the policy of contracting out the transportation of mail, and some restraint was put on the misuse of the franking privilege. (In one extreme case a United States senator had declared his horse to be a “public document,” affixed his frank to the bridle, and had the animal shipped home to Pittsburgh free.) And finally Congress decided that a mail contractor handling the U.S. mail could use any means he chose to deliver the mail so long as he did it, as the Act of March 3, 1845, said, with “celerity, certainty, and security.” Such contracts were starred with asterisks in departmental records and so came to be known as star routes.