- Historic Sites
A Zip Through History
The U.S. Post Office, 1775-1974
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Clara Boule of Lewiston, Montana, recently heard from her mother. This is less than startling, since her mother, Mrs. Elmer Lazure, lives at Belt, only eighty miles from Lewiston. But—the letter was postmarked November 17, 1969
Friends of Mrs. Edith Knudsen thought she was out of her mind when a group of young adults received vacation post-cards from her mailed from West Palm Beach and conveying greetings suitable for six-year-olds. The ex-planation: the addressees were six-year-olds when the cards were mailed.
In Washington, Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey, whose office is in the old Senate office building, reported that a letter mailed to him from the new Senate office building took three weeks to reach him. The two buildings are across the street trom each other.
A postal patron in Pittsburg, California, irate when a letter he was expecting failed to arrive, took action in the best vigilante tradition. He shot the postal clerk.
Little horror stories like those just cited are regularly put on the teletype by the great press associations and are read with a compulsive fascination by a public that apparently has a well-developed taste for self-flagellation and is convinced that they manage these matters better in England, in France, or, as one indignant reader of the New York Times wrote, in Mongolia. According to the calculus of the pessimists the operations of the Post Office Department (since 1970 an independent public corporation and renamed the United States Postal Service) are absolutely determined by Murphy’s Law. This is a rule of thumb which postulates that everything takes longer than you think and that if anything can go wrong it will.
On the happier side the postal service is popularly credited with a dazzling performance in delivering nixies. Nixies? A nixie is post-office slang of unknown origin for undeliverable mail. Nixies include letters torn by postal machinery, pouch mail scorched or charred in an air-mail crash or soaked by fire hoses. Children write nixies. So do mental patients, the semiliterate, and ingenious jokers who deliberately indite obscure addresses to put the nixie clerks on their mettle. Letters addressed to “My Teacher” have been delivered. A letter with only the superscription “Pastor Ihno Janssen,” mailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, was correctly delivered to the Lutheran minister in San Francisco. An envelope marked “Cookie, Ask Smitty” reached its destination. (The solution: a letter carrier called Smitty took the missive to a tavern owner known as Cookie.) An example beyond the call of duty occurred when a letter addressed “ S.O.B. , Washington” was promptly carried to the late Drew Pearson, the controversial newspaper columnist. Any nosegay of nixies would have to include a remarkable example of the genre in the shape of a 1963 letter addressed to the purchasing agent of Cowford, Florida, a place name that does not exist. Cowford became Jacksonville in 1822. Nevertheless the letter was delivered. More recently a group of letters was mailed from Canada, Jamaica, and various points in the United States addressed to individuals in Waterbug City, U.S.A. Twenty-six out of thirty-five were correctly delivered—to recipients in Washington, D.C. But perhaps in our particular time frame this was an easy one.
Slow deliveries and miraculous deliveries—the people’s emotional reactions to both, the mingling of affection with the pleasure of abusing the post office, represent the complex love-hate relationship of the American citizen with his postal establishment. Both attitudes demonstrate, each in its different way, the tremendous importance attached to this institution, which touches more people, more often, in a more personal way, than any other agency of the federal government. Thoreau was able to say that he could easily do without the post office, but he carried few of his admirers with him on this point. Though citizen-patrons no longer write “Haste, post, Haste” on the covers of their missives, as our colonial forefathers did, the same eager psychology remains. People are acutely sensitive to any delays in delivering the mail and take an apoplectic view of them. The public’s friendly feeling toward the letter carrier is natural, for he handles humanity’s most intimate hopes and fears, its news and its business, and he is the visible embodiment of the national government, seen and appreciated every day. Perhaps we also sense, when we stop to think about it, the constitutional significance of the postal service, for the power to establish post offices and post roads was carefully written into the Constitution itself (Article I, Section 8).
The delivery of mail has been a public function since the rulers of antiquity found that communication was necessary to the control of distant territories. As a guardian of the security of the state, then, the postal service was a police measure. This concept can be traced back at least to the fifth century B.C. , when, during the Persian Wars, Xerxes used swift couriers to send back to Persia the news of his invasion of Greece. Herodotus has the story:
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.
The union between England and Scotland in 1707 and the growth of the American colonies emphasized the need for a comprehensive postal system throughout the empire, and that same year the British government purchased back Neale’s private monopoly. Parliament reorganized and consolidated the post office in 1711 and established stiff rates for letters, based on distance travelled and number of sheets. (The envelope had not yet been invented; instead the sheets were folded and sealed with wax.) Two sheets meant double postage, and the postmaster held the letter up to a lighted candle to make sure the sender was honest. The Postal Act, a revenue measure designed to help finance the War of the Spanish Succession, caused no great stir in most of British North America except in Virginia, where the House of Burgesses saw the rates as a tax and vigorously raised the constitutional argument of taxation without representation almost fifty years before the Stamp Act controversy. There was, however, more widespread latent hostility. Many subterfuges were practiced. Shipmasters “forgot” to call at the letter offices, and post riders, more interested in the business they could pick up on the side than in expediting the mails, bought and sold along the King’s Highway, performed private commissions, and filled their portmanteaus with money and merchandise.
Little happened in the way of increased facilities, innovations, or expanded public use of the postal service for the next forty years. The line of undistinguished postmasters general was at last broken by the appointment in 1753 of Benjamin Franklin jointly with William Hunter, the printer, or as we would say today, publisher, of the Virginia Gazette at Williamsburg. Franklin was experienced. He had already been deputy postmaster at Philadelphia for fifteen years and had acted as comptroller of the colonial posts, visiting and instructing local postmasters along the country’s “great Postal Road” (now part of U.S. Route 1). Franklin wanted the job for the prestige of being an important crown official and because it would help increase the sale of his newspaper and the number of advertisements. He discharged the duties of his office brilliantly despite long absences in London during his incumbency.
Early in 1774 Franklin was dismissed from the British service, ostensibly because of his connection with the exposé of the correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor at Boston. The crown post office was already disintegrating. The British had used it to block the efforts of the colonies to act in concert, delaying or destroying newspapers and opening and reading private mail, a form of censorship that the British considered legal. But these actions alienated the business and mercantile classes and contributed heavily to the steady build-up of patriot resentment. Even before Franklin was cashiered, the Committees of Correspondence were using their own express riders for communication, and the Sons of Liberty were retaliating upon the English by stopping the royal mail riders, opening their dispatches, and exhorting the populace to the effect that it was unconstitutional to patronize the king’s post office.
Several proposals were under consideration by 1774 for an independent postal service, notably that of William Goddard, the scrappy, aggressive printer of a Baltimore newspaper that had suffered under the imperial post office. Goddard actually got his private-enterprise system into operation; he called it the constitutional post office. But when the Continental Congress authorized a publicly owned post office on July 26, 1775, it passed over Goddard and named Franklin as the first American postmaster general.
On Christmas Day, 1775. the royal mail closed down because the couriers could no longer maintain the service. A year later Franklin’s connection with the American post office also ceased with his appointment as commissioner to the court of France. His son-in-law, Richard Bache, succeeded him. From Bache’s administration, as one historian has nicely phrased it, “the scramble for postmasterships may be said to date.”
During the Revolution the American post office was a feeble agency, plagued by guerrilla warfare, unreliable personnel, and the problems of a depreciated currency. Service continued through the critical period of the Confederation. In fact, postal principles of great historic importance were established by the Articles of Confederation—that “the united states” had “the sole and exclusive right and power of… establishing and regulating post-offices from one state to another, throughout all the united states, and exacting such postage … as may be requisite to defray the expences of the said office.”
When government under the Constitution began, the American postal system had about seventy-five post offices and 1,875 miles of post roads to serve a population of three million. Stagecoaches were used on the main lines, and men on horseback covered what is now Maine, the South beyond Maryland, and the “cross posts,” i.e., inland branch routes. This system was, in embryo, the postal service of today.
At the same time the debate, which has never been resolved, became intense in the 1790’s over the problem of whether the post office was a business or a service. Should the profitable areas underwrite the cost of service for a thin population scattered over a vast terrain of mountains, wilderness, rivers, and swamps? Our greatest statesmen—notably Washington and Madison, Calhoun and Clay—have said clearly that the post.office is necessary for an informed citizenry. Most, but not all, postmasters general have said so. Congress has said so but then had second thoughts when it was necessary to pass supplementary appropriations bills to cover deficits; and brave men have flinched at the cost of providing mail service for such outposts of civilization as Weeping Water, Nebraska; Towanda, Kansas; and French Bar, Montana.
Adam Smith and many later economic theorists supported the fiscal principle of the post office as a source of revenue. “The post-office,” Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations , “is properly a mercantile project. The Government advances the expence … and is repaid with a large profit by the duties upon what is carried.” But there were other pressures at work. Congressmen, especially from the newer states, clamored for more post roads in their districts, and the post rider’s portmanteau, stuffed with letters and newspapers, became a visible symbol of national unity. “Let us conquer space,” said Calhoun in 1817; “it is thus that a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic.” So Congress authorized the extension of the post roads with enthusiasm, leaving it to the postmaster general to pay for them as best he could.
The theory of political pragmatists that “to the victor belongs the spoils,” while not the invention of Andrew Jackson, was eminently congenial to his conception of politics—a game of rewards for loyalty and punishment for opposition. President Jackson’s postmaster general, John McLean of Ohio, an able administrator, protested that if political action in government employees was wrong, then those who worked for Jackson in the election of 1828 as well as those who had supported John Quincy Adams should be dismissed.
“To this General Jackson at first made no reply,” as Ben: Perley Poore, author and newspaper correspondent, told the story in his Reminiscences , “but rose from his seat, puffing away at his pipe; and after walking up and down the floor two or three times, he stopped in front of his rebellious Postmaster-General, and said, ‘Mr. McLean, will you accept a seat upon the bench of the Supreme Court?’ ” He did, and thus many subordinates in the Post Office Department, including old Revolutionary soldiers, made room for successors with good Jacksonian credentials. A newspaperman who was unceremoniously turned out of his local postmastership wrote: “The editor did not wish that General Jackson should be President; so General Jackson did not choose that the editor should be postmaster. The general succeeded in his wishes and the editor did not, and the account is closed.”
William Henry Harrison, the aging hero of Tippecanoe, in his one month of power before he died in office, tried to stand against the multitude of hungry Whig politicians that swarmed into Washington “with racoon-tails in their hats and packages of recommendations in their pockets,” as Poore described the scene. Whigs and high-toned Federalists, National Republicans and strict constructionists, bank and antibank men—all preached Union for the sake of Union. But what they meant was “for the sake of the office.” From that time on, the Post Office Department was more politicized than any other agency of government. The politicians found that the system provided party workers at government expense. Thus, indirectly, the government underwrote the two-party system, and through the liberal use of the franking privilege the post office carried part of the costs of those in power. This was true of other government agencies, but no other had as many employees as conveniently deployed throughout the nation as the post office. And thus it was that the postmaster general became the President’s arch politician and every crossroads postmaster a postmaster-politician. The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, of which more later, represented a new move on the part of Congress toward breaking up this traditional pattern.
The theme of post-office patronage has enriched our native humor with a memorable comic character—the man in search of a local postmastership. In an imaginary interview with Lincoln as President-elect “at his humstid in Springfield” the humorist Artemus Ward wrote of Lincoln’s parlor being so filled with importunate place-seekers that one patriot from Michigan slid down the chimney into the fireplace, brushed the soot out of his eyes, and yelled: “Don’t make eny pintment at the Spunkville postofiss till you’ve read my papers. All the respectful men in our town is signers to that there dockyment!” In similar vein David Ross Locke created the character of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, his orthographic atrocities patterned after the style popularized by Ward. Nasby was an illiterate country preacher, both foolish and corrupt, whose prose took the form of “letters” purporting to originate in “Confedrit x Roads wich is in the Stait uv Kentucky.” In one of his communications Nasby has just received what he terms his Reward of Virtue:
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.
The potentialities of the railroads for moving the mails were mentioned in the Annual Report of the postmaster general in 1835, and three years later Congress declared all railroads to be post roads and authorized the post office to enter into mail-carrying contracts with the railroads. There were difficulties at first. Railroad technology developed more slowly than had been anticipated, and the companies also wanted to be overpaid—sound familiar? Even religious controversies were stirred up. Several formidable religious organizations made an issue in the nineteenth century of the movement and delivery of mail on the Christian Sabbath. There were petitions, mass meetings, and counter mass meetings; and at Philadelphia on Sundays, Major Ben: Per ley Poore remembered, chains secured with padlocks were stretched across the streets traversed by the mail coaches. But the secular forces won out on the historic principle of the separation of church and state. Now, deep into the twentieth century, cost cutting has brought about what religious scruple could not accomplish: no regular deliveries on Sunday. By the time of the Civil War the rail network was the dominant facility for moving the mails, and two great monopolies were linked in an uneasy partnership. It is significant of the changed conditions that in 1863 the statistical tables on the transmission of mail by stagecoach were dropped from the postmaster general’s Annual Report .
When Civil War hostilities began, the mail service was the last bond between the North and the seceded states to be broken. It is one of the incongruities of history that the service had not in the crunch strengthened the bonds of Union but actually served to consolidate the irreconcilable opinions already held as the confrontation approached. The post office had been unavoidably caught up in the slavery question before the war when southern postmasters removed objectionable printed matter from the mail sacks. As far back as the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory was prepared to disregard the First Amendment in order to bar the odious doctrines of the abolitionists from circulating in the southern states.
At last, and with great reluctance, in the summer of 1861 the United States prohibited the exchange of mail with the Confederate states, except for the Union portions of Virginia and Tennessee, and changed the postage rates, which left the southern postmasters without valid stamps. During the conflict steady progress was made in improving the postal system in the North, with such innovations as the money order and free home delivery in the larger cities. Finances improved because the war cut off the operation of unprofitable units in the southern states.
The Post Office Department of the Confederacy began operations on June i, 1861, under John Henninger Reagan, a former Texas congressman who accepted the task with great reluctance. But Reagan proved to be an energetic cabinet officer who made the postal service selfsustaining despite the enormous difficulties encountered by a government at war. When the Confederate post office collapsed early in 1865, the U.S. Post Office Department again took over the routes.
In the Great West the mountain men were followed by the soldiers, the traders, gold and silver prospectors, land speculators—and postal clerks. The first mail service to the Pacific coast was by ship, with the mid-stage crossing of the Isthmus of Panama accomplished by canoe and mule power. But the main emphasis soon shifted to the Overland Route. There were other objectives in addition to delivering the mail—to determine the best emigrant route and to scout the right of way for a future transcontinental railroad. Senator William H. Seward spoke to the point when he said that the post office was “a great instrumentality for maintaining, preserving and extending this Union.”
The first or southern route was, roughly speaking, a great semicircle extending from St. Louis via El Paso, Tucson, and Los Angeles to San Francisco, nearly twentyeight hundred miles long, the longest stagecoach line in America. It was a day of universal joy and excitement at San Francisco on the October day in 1858 when the first mail coach turned from Market Street into Montgomery. The driver blew his horn lustily, cracked his whip. The horses dashed bravely. Dust flew. The coach rattled, and the air was filled with hats and hurrahs. At about the same time the eastbound coach arrived at its terminus. John Butterfield, who operated the stages and “celerity wagons” of the Overland Mail Company, sent a jubilant telegram to President Buchanan, whose reply called the feat “a glorious triumph for civilization and the Union.” After the Civil War began, there were depredations upon the mails by Texas Confederates, and the Butterfield mail coaches were shifted to the central route.
There were also Indian troubles. Horses were run off. Post stations were destroyed and personnel massacred. But the drivers and mail guards gave a good account of themselves, barricaded behind their coaches and mail pouches, “well equipped,” according to a breezy western account, “with Colt’s persuaders and Arkansas toothpicks” (bowie knives and daggers). By the time the war ended, the Indian menace was largely contained, as soldiers were shifted west for service on the Plains.
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 !”’
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.
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.
The urban carrier, the “walking post office,” with thirty-five pounds of mail slung from his shoulders or, increasingly now, stacked in a special cart, and a wary eye for unfriendly dogs, also shares with his patrons all the varieties of human circumstance. Postmen have delivered babies along with the mail, saved little girls from burning buildings, applied artificial respiration, and dived into icy waters to save the drowning; and on his own off-the-clock time the postman, like other good citizens, collects for muscular dystrophy or the March of Dimes. Other nonpostal functions of the department that contribute to the general welfare are of a more official nature. The postal service assists with taking the census, military recruiting, and the registration of enemy aliens in time of war. The postal inspectors ferret out frauds and swindles perpetrated through the mails. The service promotes U.S. Savings Bond sales, distributes civil-service information, and helps the FBI catch suspected criminals.
The post office has also had a hand in straightening out conflicts, obscurities, or whimsies in American place names and officially promulgated new ones until President Harrison by executive order in 1890 established the Board on Geographic Names. A local postmaster-cum-storekeeper, struggling to find a name, saw a catchy word on a can of sardines, and thus Lamoine, Washington, entered the Postal Guide . Sometimes when local opinion reached an impasse, the name problem was bucked up to Washington, where a clerk picked out something short and snappy, easy to spell and pronounce. One clerk, for example, sought inspiration in the given names of the children and babies in his immediate neighborhood, which may explain why there are five post offices named Eva, four for May, three Olas and Oras, and four Fays, Onas, and Idas plus, for good measure, an Ida Grove.
In the present century powerful craft unions put pressure on Congress for higher wages and other benefits and repeatedly produced results. Indeed, a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers has called Albert S. Burleson, Woodrow Wilson’s postmaster general, the father of the postal unions, because it was largely in reaction to his tough stance that the letter carriers affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Postal employees are all organized now. Some of the unions have lodge and fraternal characteristics that are even older than unionism. The state and national conventions, the ritualistic installation of officers, the amenities connected with the dais and podium, the presence of the ladies’ auxiliaries en tenue de soirée —all add up to a complete and satisfying social life that is lived within the great postal family.
When the rural letter-carriers gathered for their national convention in 1972, they found that everything was up-todate in Kansas City, which offered the carriers and their families, the announcement of the convention said, “a blend of culture and sophistication liberally spiked with Old West history.” The auxiliaries do a good deal more than install officers at lovely candlelight ceremonies. At home and especially when in convention assembled, the wives come to the aid of their spouses by writing cautionary letters that say “Go Go” or “No No” on bills before their elected representatives in Congress; and their great influence in postal lobbying is widely acknowledged. And so at the 1972 convention, along with Gayle Booth of the juniors singing “Make This World a Better Place” and a concert by the junior band, which performed creditably with only four practice sessions, and along with the awarding of retirement pins and the gaiety of the constant going and coming, the carriers kept their eyes on the ball. That is to say, they watched closely the bills reported out of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the variations in the Consumer Price Index. The letter carriers are known for their long memory, and they have their own pantheon of heroes. Annually, their association holds a memorial service in New York honoring the memory of Samuel Sullivan “Sunset” Cox, the Ohio congressman who introduced a landmark bill in Congress in 1877 calling for postal vacations, an eight-hour day, and a uniform rate of pay for letter carriers. A statue to Cox erected by the postmen still stands in Tompkins Square Park in New York City.
The 1960’s brought an atmosphere of crisis. The post office had long been starved for capital investment needed to make improvements in facilities. The volume of mail rose steadily and relentlessly year after year. This appears to contradict the widely accepted view that we don’t write letters today with the frequency and fullness of expression practiced by earlier generations. There are more of us, to be sure, but we use the telephone. And life is too hurried for leisurely communication. The controlling factor, however, is that most mail isn’t in the personal category now but consists of business mail and closely parallels the for- ward march of the Gross National Product. That is why on a typical day the American postal system handles almost as much mail as does all the rest of the world combined. Something had to give way. In October, 1966, there was a catastrophic foul-up in Chicago when the service broke down completely, and early in 1970 the department experienced a wildcat strike in ten cities. Schoolteachers strike. Garbage collectors do it. Why not postal workers? Under federal law government employees are barred from striking. But the government found it impossible to enforce tough penalties against a massive job action. And the fact that congressmen had recently, with amazing celerity, raised their own salaries by 40 per cent was not helpful.
In 1967, with the post office still teetering near the brink, General Lawrence F. O’Brien, who had once wondered aloud about the possibility of delivering mail by carrier pigeons (as the French did in 1870 with considerable success when the Prussian army had Paris surrounded), recommended that the creaky old department, with all its traditions and encrustations acquired since the days of the Second Continental Congress, should be liquidated and replaced by an independent postal corporation. President Johnson promptly appointed a commission to consider the matter, and it submitted a multivolume report in favor of the reform. The Nixon administration endorsed the proposal. At first Congress was cool to the idea. But weary with the pressures and the parsimonious approach to post-office funding by the then Bureau of the Budget, frightened by the recent strike and public resentments, Capitol Hill decided there was more to be lost than gained from holding on to the direct responsibility for postal affairs. So reform carried the day in 1970, effective July 1, 1971.
The unions were militantly opposed at first, believing that the change would diminish their influence and wishing to preserve their cozy relationship with Congress in the matter of wages. In the end they were appeased by a general wage increase and certain other goodies that found their way into the final bill. The legislation creating the new corporation, which goes under the title United States Postal Service, or USPS, provided that postal revenues shall eventually equal total costs of running the establishment, which means that the act was a victory for those who believe that the postal service should be looked at as a business proposition.
The results of the dollars-first philosophy were quickly evident in service cuts and higher postage rates. The assurances of the proponents of the independent corporation appeared difficult to fulfill after the congratulatory mood had passed. If this agency can operate on a break-even basis, it may be said parenthetically, we shall be the only nation in the West that can do it. For the others profits from nationalized telephone and telegraph facilities make up actual deficits, and this in countries with shorter distances than ours, a compact population, and a tradition of low wages.
Elmer T. Klassen, postmaster general and head of the largest communications system ever known to man, an agency with some seven hundred thousand employees, pursues the contradictory goals of better mail service and lower costs. So far dollars have come out first, but there is some evidence of a swing in the other direction. Service is on the uptick, the department asserts, and complaints from customers dropped 70 per cent during the fiscal year that ended last June 30.
But the patrons are always in a skeptical mood. The gains in quality of service made in 1972 were not visible to the naked eye of James Boren, a pear-shaped management consultant and himself a repentant bureaucrat from Capitol Hill. In October Boren put the postal service to a competitive test by delivering eighty-four letters by his own pony express between Philadelphia and Washington, beating a group of letters sent by regular mail. In some instances the differences were as much as eight days. “We had a leisurely trip,” the eminent Mr. Boren informed this writer. “I knew that there was no rush.”
Little incidents come to light from time to time that suggest that the old post office was an ideal employer for workers not especially interested in career opportunities. During World War n the post office engaged on a temporary basis some scholarly gentlemen to read Japanese and Russian newspapers at relatively high salaries. Assigned to a cubbyhole in the old post-office building in Washington, they were found there in 1958, after thirteen years of peace, reading their yellowing wartime newspapers, still drawing their pay for nonexistent duties.
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.