The yuletide season is the time of year when my feelings of gratitude go out to a group of extremely busy employees at an organization whose work over the last 241 years helped create America: the carriers of the United States Postal Service.
This holiday season postal carriers will deliver more than 15 billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. That’s 10 percent more than last year’s yuletide season.
Most Americans know little, if anything, about the Post Office’s prestigious role in the development of our country. Some folks know, of course, that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster. But that’s about it.
I’ve been reading an interesting book—How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagher—that delves into the postal service throughout America’s history, including recent challenges faced by USPS in the digital age. For anyone interested in America history, Gallagher’s 2016 book offers a fresh view of how our country evolved.
Back when our fledgling country was only 13 states, thick forests and rugged terrain isolated communities from one another. Communication was extremely limited due to the lack of roads. Only narrow paths linked some communities; in some places, the only way from one community to another was trudging through pathless forests.
Gallagher relates life-endangering episodes that mail carriers encountered while traveling through the great wilderness. One carrier, for instance, was treed by aggressive wild hogs. Another was badly delayed after being struck in the head by a floating log when swimming across a stream while leading his horse. Always, the threat of hostile natives existed—native Americans early on; later on, gun-toting robbers.
Early post offices were usually located in local taverns. Recipients of mail often read newly arrived letters and newspapers out-loud to folks who eagerly gathered to learn the news. News, it seems, drew interest even if it was only tidbits about someone’s Aunt Sally in a far-away hamlet. And a dram or two of whiskey heightens interest in news, too, you know.
Our country’s founding fathers—Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, among others, (here’s a fellow few modern American are familiar with) Dr. Benjamin Rush—strongly believed the new United States would only survive if a communications network was established to connect widely scattered and culturally diverse hamlets, towns, and cities.
In short, the country desperately needed a postal service that would be a “means of carrying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth,” according to Dr. Rush, who by some historical accounts was less than an adequate physician but one heck of an intellectual.
He and others also thought western expansion hinged in many ways on the availability of a reliable and affordable communication lifeline (a postal system, in other words) for adventuresome farmers and merchants to remain in contact with family members back at the old homestead. “Pioneers were likelier to venture into the wilderness if they anticipated maintaining a link to the great world,” Gallagher pointed out.
Another goal was to make postal delivery affordable for every American. In 1779, the postal delivery fee was dependent on how far the item was sent. The cost ranged from 6 cents for 30 miles or less to 12 cents for 150 miles (back then, 1 cent could buy a pound of coffee). With inflation over the last two centuries taken into account, the six and 12 cents of 1779 is the equivalent of $1.59 and $3.18, respectively, in today’s currency. This is considerably more than the 49-cent cost of a first-class mail stamp of 2017 that will carry a letter to anywhere in the U.S. All in all, the Post Office has kept postal delivery reasonably affordable.
The U.S. postal system was a bold revolutionary idea designed to connect all people in the nation. Until the Post Office’s creation, the best mail systems were in Europe. Those were sketchy at best; the cost of delivery so exorbitant only the rich could afford it.
After the federal government established the Post Office, the service subsidized—through various configurations of public-private endeavors that spanned decades—the creation of roads, shipping on waterways, and rail lines that could be used for mail delivery. There was another great advantage. This new transportation infrastructure was there for the public’s use, too, a huge benefit that allowed Americans to more easily travel from here to there.
“The public-private collaboration between the post and the independent carriers it paid to move the mail caused dirt roads to shoot through dense forests, turned remote hamlets into centers of civic life, and supported the sense of an American identity,” Gallagher wrote.
In 1790, the mail system consisted of only 75 post offices and 1,875 miles of post routes. By 1830, the numbers had increased to 8,400 post offices and 115,000 miles.
Now, the USPS delivers mail to more addresses in a larger geographic area than any postal service in the world. Each year the Post Office delivers 154 billion pieces of mail to more than 156 million addresses in the U.S. This is about 47 percent of the world’s volume of mail.
All of this history, of course, may mean little to us in comparison to our great desires of today to have holiday cards and gifts arrive before Christmas. Nonetheless, the history is a good reminder of how we got to where we are as a nation.
Ponder the history a bit when you see a postal carrier headed to your mailbox. And offer the carrier a hearty thank you.