A Zip Through History


A vivid description of the journey west from the Missouri frontier to Carson City, Nevada, appears in Mark Twain’s Roughing It , and the same volume also provides the classic account of meeting the flying figure of the pony-express rider. The “horse express” was not established for romance or as a stunt but to demonstrate the practicability of the central route for all-weather travel—and to obtain a mail contract. This famous episode in postal history lasted only nineteen months as a carrier of news, ending with the completion of the telegraph line on October 24, 1861. But the nervy, wiry young riders (orphans preferred, an advertisement explained) with their leather cantinas, or mailboxes, and their dependable, speedy mustangs, have become a cherished memory of our national experience. Let us yield to sentiment for a moment as Mark Twain writes ‘“ HERE HE COMES !”’

Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky. … In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—sweeping toward us nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined … and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear—another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go swinging away like a belated fragment of a storm!

The U.S. mail has produced another durable folk figure, the country postmaster, known since classifications were established in 1864 as the fourth-class postmaster, an important man in his little world, who had gone before a magistrate and solemnly sworn that he would support the Constitution of the United States, faithfully perform the duties of his office, and abstain from everything forbidden in the Postal Laws and Regulations . He was, moreover, “a man in whose Ability, Integrity, and Prudence,” his commission stated, “the President of the United States reposed special confidence.” In the early days of the Republic the postmaster, as has already been noticed, was likely to be a printer or the keeper of a tavern. The emoluments were modest, but so were the duties. “A Offis with but little to do,” as postmaster-designate Petroleum V. Nasby exulted, and “four grocerys [barrooms] within a stone’s throw. …”

In the present century the number of rural post offices has been drastically reduced by rural free delivery and new patterns of living based upon the automobile and paved roads. Yet thousands still exist under the management of a postmaster, or postmistress, who combines postal responsibilities with other economic activities. Betty Evenson, who is the postmaster general’s woman in charge at Hiland, Wyoming (pop. 10), between Casper and Shoshone, runs a café, the Bright Spot, a filling station, and the post office on the same premises—and has enough free time to write stories for the confession magazines about sin, suffering, and repentance. She picks up good story lines shooting the breeze with bus drivers, truckers, and the sheep and cattle ranchers who drop by for a cup of coffee and their mail.

With a table listing all the U.S. post offices, the current rates for postage, a map of the United States, a copy of the postal laws and regulations, a key for unlocking pouches, scale beams, brass weights, pen, ink, twine, a ledger, and set of pigeonholes, the fourth-class postmaster was and still is ready for business. Standing at his delivery window, he is monarch of all he surveys, yet democratically responsive to such requests as “Please put stamps on three letters for me and send me one dozen lemons and i Ib of soder crackers.” All of these small post-office jobs were until recently the reward of political regularity, and the struggle for them on the local scene was titanic if not heroic. Letters, accusations, affidavits, remonstrances, and petitions were fired off to Washington, filled with charges and countercharges of a most serious character. Such as:

That the candidate is a charity case and his friends simply wish to be relieved of his support.

That he has gone through chancery, paid off his creditors for ten cents on the dollar, and now lives in suspicious elegance.

That he rejects the Scriptures and does not observe the Sabbath.

That he has been engaged in the manufacture of strong liquors.

The error that could not be forgiven, however, was to belong to the wrong political party. From 1885 to 1889, to cite a typical example, Adlai E. Stevenson, Grover Cleveland’s first assistant postmaster general and later his Vice President, turned out four fifths of the fourth-class postmasters as “Republican rascals.” In the following—Republican—administration of Benjamin Harrison the new postmaster general, John Wanamaker, continued the game of musical chairs but reversed the positions of the players.