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

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.”

Post Office. Source: Leffler, Warren K., photographer

The Great Depression and World War II created new challenges for the Postal Service. As unemployment rates soared in the 1930s, mail volume plummeted as Americans sent less mail to save postage. World War II posed the opposite problem, as the Postal Service faced the daunting task of coordinating the delivery of thousands of letters to and from service members stationed around the world.

Mr. Zip served as the postal service’s representative in the zip code marketing campaign. Source: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The postwar economic boom prompted the Postal Service to introduce the “zip code” system in the 1960s. This five-digit number was a way to better organize the ever-growing volumes of mail that the Postal Service had to handle. In this massive undertaking, the Postal Service not only had to create a system that could apply to the entire country but also run an effective marketing campaign to win over skeptical Americans. Some critics charged that the new system was too complex, and would further bog down the Postal Service. Others alleged that it was a communist plot designed to use dehumanize the American public by reducing them to a series of numbers. Despite these objections, the Postal Service,  with the help of a cartoon mascot named Mr. Zip, eventually won over the public.

While some Americans worried that the Postal Service was embarking on communist plots, the Federal government worried that foreign communists were using the mail to distribute propaganda. In the Postal Service and Federal Employees Salary Act of 1962, Congress required post offices to hold any foreign communist materials, and only release them if the recipient specifically requested it. The Postal Service was once more in the spotlight as the case went to the Supreme Court. In Lamont vs. Postmaster General, the court declared that clause of the law unconstitutional as it unfairly limited the free speech rights of Americans.

Despite the Postal Services’ successes during World War II and the postwar years, by the 1960s, the agency was facing a number of issues: aging facilities, outdated procedures, and disgruntled customers frustrated with these inefficiencies. As the volume of mail and packages continued to grow, it seemed that the Postal Service was unable to meet the increasing demand. Things came to a head when Postal Service workers staged a wildcat strike. Underpaid and underappreciated, the workers demanded that management negotiate with them for better working conditions.

Union representatives bargain with USPS in 1971, one year after passage of the Postal Reorganization Act. Source: Library of Congress

The strike was successful. Postal workers received raises and a voice in legislative talks about how to improve the Postal Service. On August 12, 1970, after months of negotiation, the Postal Reorganization Act became law. The Postal Service was transformed into the United States Postal Service (USPS), a government corporation with a board of governors. While the goal was for the USPS to be run like a business, it was still mandated to provide efficient and effective mail services to the entire country. The law also granted postal employees collective bargaining rights, pay raises, and an improved paygrade and promotion system. Under this new structure, USPS stopped receiving government subsidies in the 1980s.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the USPS began to adopt new technologies to fulfill its mission. New letter sorting machines helped the USPS tackle the increasing volumes of mail, while parcel sorting machines helped manage the packages USPS handled and delivered. The agency also installed automated kiosks at some post offices to speed up service. In the late 1990s, the agency allowed users to purchase and print barcodes for sending mail and packages. In the early 2000s, the USPS began offering online package tracking.

Stamps have been used to recognize and honor noteworthy individuals, organizations, and locations. This ceremony marked the unveiling of a stamp commemorating the National Wildlife Refuge System. Source: National Archives

Despite these technological and customer service innovations, the 21st century brought new challenges. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the volume of mail declined, and wouldn’t recover until 2004. The General Accounting Office (GAO) also raised concerns about USPS’s finances, stating in a report that its long term outlook was “high-risk.” In 2003, in response to concerns that the USPS was on track to overpay its retirement obligations, Congress passed the Postal Civil Service Retirement System Funding Reform Act. The law was designed to ensure that the organization’s projected savings would be wisely spent. Instead, when those savings failed to materialize, the USPS was forced to raise rates, prompting public outrage.

In the face of public outrage and institutional concerns, Congress passed, with broad bipartisan support, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. The law increased the power of the Postal Regulatory Commission to regulate and investigate fraud and misconduct at the USPS. It also placed limits on how much the USPS could hike the price of stamps in order to prevent future rate shocks like the one customers experienced in 2005. Rates for package post and other services considered “competitive,” where private-sector competition existed, would not be capped. The law also freed the USPS of its obligation to pay military pension costs, but it required them to pre-fund $5.6 billion of retiree health benefits each year for a decade. While this clause would soon cause the post office considerable hardship, much of the initial reception to the law was positive. Consumers praised the limits on stamp prices increases, and the GAO declared that the USPS was no longer listed on its “high-risk” list. The GAO concluded that the new law “provides tools and mechanisms that can be used to address key challenges facing the Service.” With mail volumes bouncing back, it seemed that the Postal Service was on a sounder footing and ready to meet the future.

A USPS employee in New York sorts packages at a makeshift facility created after Hurricane Sandy damaged the local post office building. Source: National Archives

But another setback followed. The 2007 recession sent shockwaves through the USPS. The volume of first-class mail sent sharply declined, a trend that continues today. In response, USPS scaled back services and raised package shipping rates. USPS leaders asked Congress for funds and also requested that it repeal the onerous requirement of prepaying employee’s retirement health benefits. In the years that followed, the decline in the mail service line was offset by profits in the USPS’s package delivery operations. However, the retirement prepayment obligations continued to hang over the organization’s head.

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic once again threw the USPS into the public spotlight. The economic recession further imperiled the organization’s finances—but the CARES Act, a massive economic stimulus bill, passed without any funding for the struggling postal service. After opposing including USPS funding in the CARES Act, the Trump administration eventually provided a $10 billion line of credit to the USPS. As the USPS dealt with the fallout from the pandemic, attention once again turned to the prepaid retirement clause and its impact on USPS finances, with several members of Congress offering bills to tackle the issue.

USPS vans parked before the beginning of the next shift. Source: Sam LaRussa/Flickr

Now, as many Americans prepare to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of in-person voting, new policy changes by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy have impeded mail delivery in parts of the country and raised concern that ballots will not be counted on time. The USPS insists these changes will not impact its ability to deliver ballots, but not to the satisfaction of concerned critics. The USPS has since backtracked some recent changes and seen others struck down in court, but the impact on the election remains to be seen.

Throughout its history, the Postal Service has grown and changed with the country. Where mail was once delivered by stagecoach to local postal offices, today, electronic barcodes facilitate the delivery of mail and packages by plane and truck to the recipient’s front door. What hasn’t changed is the magnitude of the task at hand: connecting the United States one letter and package at a time.

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