You’ve Got Mail

A History of the Post Office

Motorcycle Postman, 1912 (Library of Congress)

For more than two centuries, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night has kept American letter carriers from delivering the mail. But with the USPS facing $6.5 billion in losses so far this fiscal year, it now seems like budget woes might do what the weather couldn’t. (At least on Saturdays.)

In this episode, the History Guys will explore the rise – and fall – of the post office system. Most of us think of the mail primarily as a communications medium, but in the early days of our nation’s history, it served a vitally important political function as well. National politicians used the mail to reach a geographically-scattered electorate, and citizens used it to engage one another on the important issues of the day. If that weren’t enough, we also have the postal system to thank for the nation’s early road network.

So what would it mean for our country if the mail only came a few days a week — or not at all? When you think about the post office, do you think “pillar of democracy” or just “bloated bureaucracy?” What would you most like to know about the history of the mail? Please help us shape this episode — post your thoughts, stories, and questions below!



Comments (20)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Loretta Fisher

    I am wondering in what ways the postal system might have ever politicized in our country’s system. Also: Have all political parties been equally supportive of the postal system? Has the postal system ever been used as a tool of surveillance? Thanks! Your show is my absolute favorite on public radio!

  2. Loretta Fisher

    Sorry, in that last comment, I meant it to read:”I am wondering in what ways the postal system might have BEEN politicized in our country’s HISTORY”. (Apparently, it is WAY too late at night to be posting comments about history!)

  3. Jeffrey Turner

    The postal service is being killed – or downsized in anticipation of privatization – by being forced to put aside money for 75 years of pensions. That money will quickly be looted by whoever buys the post office.

  4. Leah Flanagan

    Great idea for a topic! You should really talk with Prof. David Henkin, at UC Berkeley, whose book The Postal Age I believe won an award from the Postal Service. As students of US history are aware, the service was an integral part of making this country what it is today. A general lack of understanding of the importance of the postal service is a real problem today. Thanks for taking it on as a topic. I look forward to the show!

  5. Tony (BackStory Producer)

    [quote comment=”18208″]Great idea for a topic! You should really talk with Prof. David Henkin, at UC Berkeley, whose book The Postal Age I believe won an award from the Postal Service…[/quote]

    Thanks, Leah. As it happens, I’m making my way through Henkin’s book right now, and finding it very interesting indeed. Not that our 19th Century Guy needed ANOTHER example of how everything we take for granted actually got its start in the second third of the 19th century…

  6. Leah

    That’s very funny – because it’s true! Ok, I’m partial to the 19c. myself. And Henkin happens to be my personal favorite 19th c. guy, but I do love your show! (Side note – I’ve been thinking that a show on the history of higher ed, similar to the one you did on k-12 ed would be really interesting…)

  7. Robert

    The scaling back of postal service has ended mail delivery to my apartment on the campus of Tuskegee University, Alabama, where I teach world history. I now have to pick up my mail from a box at the “Tuskegee Institute” post office (ZIP code 36087), reportedly founded in 1902 when Booker T. Washington was president of the school. Local memory has it that the post office was, at least in part, a concession to racial segregation, meant to ensure that white citizens of Tuskegee would not have to share their post office with black faculty and staff at the Institute. This leads me to wonder how the postal service has managed over the years in serving different communities. Has it mostly complied with local custom, however vicious, or has its activity tended to conflict with practices that deprived, for example, “negroes” or Indians of social status?

  8. Robert

    To address the questions at the end of the blog post: I’m definitely of the “pillar of democracy” camp, and I’m concerned that the scaling back of postal service in the name of profitability is (to borrow some economic jargon) not properly incentivized. We’re being asked to accept an end to Saturday delivery in the U.S., but none of the self-styled reformers is clamoring for an end to costly domestic mail delivery to tiny nations in the Pacific (the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau). Politics is most definitely at play in this drive to make postal services less convenient and attractive to U.S. citizens.

  9. Annette

    The postal service was always reviled in my hometown because it was a decent place for blacks to work who did not have college degrees. Blacks who did go to college were, in the main, teachers. Until desegregation, they taught in black schools. But jobs in the post office were open to people who passed the test. They paid a decent salary, and people who would otherwise have to work in the homes or yards or white people for little money– or leave town– could have steady jobs with good pay. Many whites in the community resented the fact that these young people had alternatives to working for them. i cannot prove it, but I am convinced that the hostility toward the postal system is rooted in its role in bringing blacks into middle class stable jobs. Hence, the exaggerated stories about lazy, inefficient service– and claims that mail is often lost or weeks late. It has always amazed me that I could drop an envelope in a box in Texas and it would be across town, in New York, Florida, wherever, in a reasonable amount of time.

  10. Loretta Fisher

    It would be interesting to hear about how the Postmaster General was given the power to stop any mail he deemed treasonous from going through during WWI. I’ve been reading about this in Feldman’s Manufacturing Hysteria.

  11. Jason Smith

    Is it possible that the pivitization of the postal services some years back has caused more harm than good? Also, with Japan following suit in privatizing its postal services, is it possible that such a purely economic transformation has caused more of a global impact that what was originally planned?

    Curious in Japan

  12. Heather Thorwald

    How has the postal service adapted — or not — to new technologies? Transportation technology has sped up mail delivery, but new communication technologies have posed competition. Did people predict the end of letter writing when the telegraph or telephone came along? (More fodder for Ed Ayers!)

  13. Tom

    I was recently watching a program on Ben Franklin on one of the History Channels. In the program, sense was that the Postal service was initially setup as a private for-profit venture. Once the federal system was implemented, the US government took over the postal system.

    During the Civil War, the Confederacy did not take over the postal functions of the US post office until a year after separation.

    basically, the post office has survived by being a protected entity that seems not to be able to change as a private for profit company. Competitors such as UPS, Fed EX, DHL, etc. can choose profitable routes, operate more profitably by focusing on niche markets. The main issues I see with the US Postal system is 1) Congressional oversight and micromanagement and 2) having to accept business no matter what. An example of the latter is the incident when a contractor mailed several tons of building materials to Alaska at a loss to the Post Office.

  14. Sean

    I wonder about money orders– it seems to be a service that is used more in some post offices than others. Is that true, and is it based on class? I also think about how post offices can also be banks in Europe. When did the USPS start creating money orders, and why?

  15. Josh Venner

    If the Post Office reduces the number of days they delivery mail, the volume of mail traffic should be expected to drop accordingly. If they seek to rescue their operation from obscurity, the Post Office must innovate and find ways to offer new electronic services that interest younger audiences in Generations X and Y. If they don’t keep up, the Post Office will soon resemble other forgotten communication technologies including the telegraph and telegrams.

  16. Kelsey Johnson

    The post office recently lost my shipment of space ice-cream. This was and still is quite upsetting seeing as I was deserted at a summer camp in the middle of nowhere without space ice-cream. It made me lose hope in a system that I trust- I figured the USPS is more trustworthy to deliver my parcel of happiness than Fedex or UPS. Would it be more efficient to limit deliveries to a few days a week? As long as they don’t lose my space ice-cream.

  17. Doug

    Why does the country still need it? Between cell phones the internet and FedEx/UPS isn’t mail just a dinosaur? We use all the sites we can to cancel junk mail/catalogs, and that slows down some of it, but we don’t get anything through the mail we want.

  18. Lori

    My response is to Doug; many people still use the USPS for their daily mail in rural areas where internet and cell service are non-existent. In Southwestern Virginia, for example, pay phones are still at every gas station because there is no cell service in the valleys between the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the northern neck of the Potomac River has no rural delivery – the UPS man won’t deliver to your home, just to your PO box in town. My relatives in Westmoreland County, Virginia, don’t have cable or internet access (or city water and sewer, for that matter) because theryare a mile from the line where those services cut off. if you want internet in their town, you have to go to the local library or other municipal building. So even though it seems everyone in the country has the same amenities, only the cities and suburbs are the ones who are really connected to it all.

  19. Chris Foreman

    One addendum to the segment on our highly romanticized and wildly inaccurate national remembrance of the Pony Express. There have been two television shows playing off, and perpetuating, the mythical venture: the 1959-1960 black-and-white 30-minute “Pony Express” (which I recall seeing as a child) as the more recent (and longer-lived) “The Young Riders” running from 1989-1992.