Carrier of News and Knowledge: A Brief History of the United States Postal Service, Part 1

By Scott Vierick, Historian

From April 1860 to October 1861, the Pony Express used a relay system to transport mail across the United States. The organization became a contract carrier for the Postal Service in July 1861, four months before it ceased operations. Source: Library of Congress

Barely three weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the fledgling Continental Congress began the process of creating a postal system to unify and connect the 13 colonies. No longer willing to trust the British postal system, Congress created its own and named Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster. The first post office primarily handled military and diplomatic correspondence, but after the war concluded it grew and expanded. In 1787, the US Constitution explicitly gave Congress the power to establish a post office for the new nation, which it did in 1789. In 1792, Congress passed and President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act, which provided incentives for newspapers to be sent through the mail as a way to promote civic and political engagement in the early republic.

Postal clerks sort the mail on a train. This helped expedite delivery once the mail arrived at each station. Source: Library of Congress

As the country grew in both size and population, the post office expanded as well. In an era before mass communication, the post office connected citizens to each other and to their government. This early Postal Service looked very different than the one we’re used to today. There were no mailboxes or house-to-house delivery: instead, people collected their mail from the local post office. Postal roads linked post offices—and, as a result, towns—together. As it grew, the Postal Service took advantage of changes in technology to become more efficient.  While most mail was transported by horse or stagecoach, the introduction of the railroad meant that mail could be sent by train. Eventually, the Postal Service would have clerks ride the rails so that the mail could be en route to its destination.

The 19th-century Postal Service also found itself embroiled in political controversies. As a government agency, many postal officials were products of the “spoils system,” holding their jobs because of their connections to political officials rather than merit. As a result, local postmasters could change with each presidential election. Conflict also erupted over the issue of slavery. When abolitionists began sending pamphlets and newspapers through the mail, President Andrew Jackson joined enslavers in demanding that the post office prevent these materials from circulating. This led to a fierce debate in Congress, in which John C. Calhoun, a staunch proponent of slavery and states’ rights, breaking with Jackson to argue that the federal government should not have the power to decide which materials could be distributed by the post office. Although Congress did not end up legislating on the issue, evidence exists that some postmasters in the South did attempt to restrict anti-slavery mail, and an armed mob in Charleston attacked a post office and burned all the anti-slavery materials they could find. Despite these efforts, the Postal Service remained an important way for abolitionists to spread their message.

During the Civil War, post offices needed to be as mobile as the armies they served, necessitating the use of tents. In the 1864 election, the post office helped deliver the absentee ballots of soldiers at the front. Source: Library of Congress

When the Civil War began, the Postal Service collaborated with military authorities to ensure the smooth delivery of mail from Union front lines to the home front. While most mail sent to or from the Confederate states was banned, officials read and censored mail sent or received in areas occupied by the Union army. The Civil War also marked the beginning of home delivery by the Postal Service, introduced in several large cities to decrease crowding at post offices.

After the Civil War, the Postal Service continued to evolve while also confronting new challenges. As the population continued to grow and the country continued to expand westward, the railroads became even more important for transporting the mail. For postal clerks riding the trains, the work was dangerous. Fire was a constant threat, as were robbers who sought to plunder the mail. The Postal Service also had to confront stamp theft, as several high profile burglaries of post offices showed how valuable the ability to send mail had become.

Born enslaved, Mary Fields served as a Star Route Carrier in northern Montana, transporting the mail despite harsh and often dangerous conditions. Although she was in her sixties, her tough and fearless nature ensured that any would-be bandits would think twice before trying to steal the mail from her. Source: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

After the Civil War, the Postal Service continued to expand and continued to be a magnet for controversy. Postal workers sought greater benefits and protections. In 1884, Congress granted postal employees 15 days off a year. Four years later, workers won the ability to earn paid overtime. The fight over what could be sent in the mail also persisted. In 1873, the Comstock Act prohibited the distribution of birth control information through the mail. A series of court cases in the 20th century ultimately weakened or struck down many portions of the law.

In the early 20th century, the contours of what people today consider to be the modern Postal Service emerged. Free home delivery was tentatively extended to the entire country, including rural areas, in 1900, and became permanent in 1902. Package delivery was also introduced in the early decades of the century. Previously, postal carriers were limited to delivering items weighing no more than four pounds. In 1912, Congress authorized parcel post, although it stipulated that the packages couldn’t weigh more than 11 pounds—a limit it would later raise. The popular service was a boon to mail-order companies like Sears-Roebuck. New innovations, like the postage meter developed by the Pitney-Bowes Postage Company, made it easier for companies to send mail without attaching individual stamps, which helped prevent stamp fraud and theft. During this time, the Postal Service also established a savings account system for people who didn’t want to use banks, catering especially to immigrants, and began to send mail using the recently invented airplane. Each advancement supported the Postal Service’s commitment to its unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Check back in later this week to read part two of this blog, which explores the continued evolution of the postal service from the 1930s to today.

Thanks for reading! Follow us today on LinkedIn or Twitter to keep up with all the latest from the HAI Insights blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five × 5 =