I fancy sending and receiving mail: cards, letters, mail art, packages, and postcards. I delight even in receiving unsolicited consumer catalogs and other junk mail that make for great collage material. In a word, mail is fun. At its inception, however, what came to be our country’s postal service wasn’t meant for fun, but for a “secure, independent communications network so that [our country’s co-founders] could talk treason and circulate the latest news without fear of arrest.”
Readers interested in the history of the United States Postal Service or the history of the founding of America will find Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America: A History fascinating. Throughout the book, Gallagher draws parallels between the development of the postal system and that of our country, illustrating that one could not have happened without the other.
In addition to needing a way to “talk treason,” our forefathers desired a way to disseminate information to the public in post-Revolutionary America. Prior to this time, mail, which was then the only means of remote communication, was a privilege rather than the given that it is today. Those who lacked access to this communication network also lacked access to information. The postal service was increasingly relied upon as a means to educate the public about our country’s development and encourage their participation. Newspapers are among the first materials to be mailed to the masses. In fact, it was common for printers to double as postmasters. The distribution of newspapers via the postal service helped democratize access to information similar to how the post democratized access to communication.
But it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Gallagher expounds on the challenges that beleaguered the post. Transportation, for example. The earliest mail carriers were post riders. Men, usually, though not always, who carried the post on horseback and rode tirelessly to their destinations or to hand the mail off to their relay (not unlike a relay race). This was especially dangerous in a mostly unsettled country thick with uncertainty and thin, at best, with the infrastructure required to carry out the service.
Post roads were mapped to connect the country, as well as to shape its settlement. Mail was increasingly delivered by stagecoach (so called because it would stop at various intervals, or stages, along the way). By 1813, Congress authorized steamers to carry mail and, in 1823, “all waterways” were declared post roads. The development of the postal service is closely tied to that of the railroad with a sort of public-private partnership that led to the Railway Mail Service, which, until aviation came along, was the most efficient method of transporting the mail. According to Gallagher (and she makes a great case), the postal service single-handedly supported the aviation industry by subsidizing its infrastructure.
Transportation wasn’t the mail’s only challenge, however. Another was safety. Not only that of postal employees, but of the mail itself. Especially during the post rider, stagecoach, and railway days, it was not uncommon for the mail to be stolen. When mail traveled via railway it did so in wooden train cars that were placed behind the engine car, which meant that it was susceptible to fire, endangering both employees and the mail.
Finances were yet another challenge. In the early days of the American postal service, it was not the sender who paid for personal correspondence, but the recipient. One went to the post office (because that was the only option prior to home delivery) and asked for their letters and paid only for those that they wished to receive. Not surprisingly, this was costly. Not to mention the accumulation of unwanted letters, which ended up in the Dead Letter Office (an interesting destination and story in and of itself).
The postal service did more than overcome challenges, though. It changed America’s social landscape. During the Victorian era, letter-writing became extremely popular, especially among women. So much so that post offices installed separate windows for women to pick up their correspondence so as to keep aligned with that era’s social mores (i.e. to keep the women from the men, especially because, at that time, post offices could also double as places of vice). Books about the etiquette of writing letters abounded and stamp lockets, a locket containing stamps worn on a chain around the neck, became popular, as did stamp collecting.
In her final chapter, she examines the postal service’s missed opportunity to provide the Internet as a non-profit public service rather than our current privatized for-profit system. When considering how different access to electronic communication and information might look had the post prepared for a digital future, she imagines: “They would have insisted that every post office in America become a neighborhood media hub equipped with a bank of computers that enable citizens to go online for little or no expense–a service now provided by more than sixty nations around the world, to say nothing of America’s own public libraries, where people que up or take a number for online access.”
These considerations have merit. After all, the postal service and the Internet are not unlike one another. Both came about to fulfill the need for remote communication and the dissemination of information, while helping to democratize access in the process. Interestingly, public perception of both has been, at times, similar. To wit: It was feared that mail order catalogs and buying/selling goods through the mail would destroy local businesses much like it’s feared that buying/selling goods online will do the same.
Gallagher details America’s long, winding postal road with an intriguing history that spans two centuries while skillfully supporting her claim that the post office created America. In the final words of her afterward, “Whither the Post,” Gallagher encourages us “to reflect on what the post has accomplished over the centuries and what it could and should contribute in the years to come” before deciding its future. To state it simply, reading this title has only strengthened my opinion that, too often, our postal service is taken for granted.
As always, happy reading.