A Zip Through History

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The Civil Service Act, aimed at placing federal appointments on a merit basis, had been in effect since 1883. But its impact on the Post Office Department was minimal, since some forty-seven thousand postmasters were excluded from the provisions of the act, which covered only letter carriers and clerks on the workroom floor of the larger offices. Even the squalid revelations of the “star route scandals”—which dragged through the newspapers and the courts during the eighties, disclosing how postal officials and mail-route contractors had conspired to cheat the post office—failed to end the politicization of the system. In one instance the first assistant postmaster general held up the appointment of a new Republican postmaster in Ilion, New York, because of an ugly rumor that he had named his infant son Grover. When it was established that the tot’s name was really Grosvenor, the appointment went through. Employees classified under the Civil Service Act could still be caught by the ingenious inspection service in some trivial breach of the regulations and so dismissed.

In the 1890’s the urban postal workers found a new community of interest and organized themselves into labor unions that lobbied for improved working conditions, an eight-hour day, vacations with pay, pay raises, and other benefits. Now it was the employees pressing the legislators, a disturbing reversal of roles, and President Theodore Roosevelt issued an order, known since as the Gag Rule, that remained in force for a decade. It forbade federal workers to say or do anything in their own interest except through the post-office chain of command, thereby greatly invigorating the movement toward unionism in the department.

Throughout the history of the Republic postmasters general have come and gone with the regularity of the rolling seasons and almost as frequently as the equinox. Some few have been bold and imaginative, like Montgomery Blair, who sat in Lincoln’s Cabinet and organized the postal system of the Union army and introduced compulsory prepayment of postage, as well as the money order and free delivery in cities. He improved the registry system, took first steps at a conference in Paris toward expediting foreign mail service through what became the Universal Postal Union, and introduced the railway post office, which permitted the sorting of mail while in transit. Special mention should also be made of John Wanamaker, early experimenter with rural free delivery and advocate of parcel post and postal savings. Some of our less successful postmasters general have been authoritarian and militantly antilabor, as was the Republican Roosevelt’s George B. Cortelyou. Some have been the quintessential stuffed shirt, like Herbert Hoover’s Walter F. Brown, a man of pomp and circumstance, who ordered a custom-built limousine with unusual headroom to permit him to get in and out without knocking off his high hat. Arthur E. Summerfield, a former Michigan Chevrolet dealer and President Eisenhower’s postmaster general, showed an encouraging grasp of the problems of the present and future. Summerfield introduced new postal machinery and sophisticated business systems but proved to be insensitive to the point of view of the workers and infuriated Congress with his assumption that the executive department outranked the legislative. “One prominent Republican legislator,” Gerald Cullinan wrote in The Post Office Department , “when told that Summerfield was really his own worst enemy, is known to have growled, ‘Not while I’m alive, he isn’t!’”

The wider public sensed a disaster when President Truman’s choice for postmaster general in his second administration fell upon a fellow Missourian, Jesse M. Donaldson. General Donaldson (postmasters general are customarily addressed with the complimentary short form) dealt the quality of postal service a heavy blow in 1950, when in the blessed name of economy he reduced deliveries in residential areas to one a day, to two a day in business districts, cut back the frequency of street collections of letter mail, and curtailed parcel post and window service. Donaldson, said postal historian William C. Doherty, “raped the postal service.”

It would be a hazardous task to nominate a list of the best postmasters general or to expect a consensus on the subject. But this much may be said: any such roster would probably have to begin with Benjamin Franklin, John McLean, Montgomery Blair, and John Wanamaker.

No matter. The post office has survived and functioned—after its fashion. Indeed, it has been said by no less an authority than a postmaster general that nobody runs it; it just runs itself. And new services do appear, such as the prestamped postal card (1873), rural free delivery (1896), postal savings (1911), parcel post (1913), and air mail (1918). And in the early i goo’s the rural mail-carrier joined the gallery of authentic American characters, friendly, neat, accommodating, a welcome daily visitor in his mail cart or wagon with “U.S. Mail” lettered on its side. He, more than any other functionary, connected agrarian Americans with the larger world, whether it was by the letters, the newspapers with commodity quotations, or the Sears-Roebuck catalogues he delivered, or in the gossip he indulged in about the weather, the price of eggs, or who was expecting.