U.S. Postal Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The postal service has been an essential tool of American business since the country was founded. It has provided quick, reliable delivery of messages and business documents to and from customers at a reasonable cost.

Great Britain’s North American colonies at first did not have a common postal service but relied on informal ways of having messages and documents delivered to correspondents. The first formal postal office was a Boston tavern run by Richard Fairbanks. It was established as a mail center by the government of Massachusetts in 1639. Similar postal services appeared in other colonies during the seventeenth century, and some postal routes were established to send and receive mail between the larger cities. For example, the Boston Post Road, which has become a major highway but originally was a horse path, was established for monthly postal delivery between Boston and New York.Postal Service, U.S.

Postal service throughout the colonies came at the end of the seventeenth century, when the British government established a North American postal system, governed from England but run by a deputy in the colonies. The first deputy postmaster general was Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey, appointed in 1692. Gradually local postmasters were appointed, most notably Benjamin Franklin, BenjaminFranklin, who became postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. Franklin later became joint postmaster of all the colonies, a post he held until just before the Revolutionary War.

A National Postal Service

Just before and during the struggle for independence, a system for the conveyance of messages between the colonies was a vital concern of the Continental Congress, which appointed Franklin to the position of postmaster general. Franklin developed an efficient and widespread postal system to keep the colonies in communication during the war and after independence was declared in 1776. He was the first postmaster general of the new United States.

Officially created by the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the United States Post Office joined the states together with improved postal routes and a system of common rates for mail delivery. The mail service to Europe was reestablished, and new service to the western frontiers (the western parts of New York and Pennsylvania) was opened. Stagecoaches were contracted to carry the mail in addition to their passengers, and postal riders were enlisted for the various national routes.

The U.S. Constitution, finally ratified by all the states in 1789, authorized the continuation of the post office. The postmaster general was to be appointed by the president and to serve at his discretion. President George Washington appointed Samuel Osgood as his first postmaster general in 1789. The U.S. Post Office operated out of Philadelphia at first and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800, when the national capital was established there.

As early as 1785, the U.S. Post Office was directed to give business assistance in more ways than the delivery of mail. In that year, the Continental Congress directed the postal service to use stagecoach companies for mail transportation, thus helping to provide the stagecoach lines with additional business. While he was president, Washington was concerned that the post office promote and abet businesses that would build the new country’s economic health.

The acquisition of vast new lands, especially the Louisiana Territory and the Far West explored by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, expanded the responsibilities of the post office to new levels and became a symbol of the progress and growth of the young country. Under President Andrew Jackson, the importance of the post office was strengthened by the appointment of the postmaster general to his cabinet. Not until 1872 did the post office officially become a department; before it was simply the U.S. Post Office.

Throughout the nineteenth century, there was concern among the country’s leaders about the extent to which the post office should be self-supporting. Although the rates were usually reasonable, they were at first pegged to the distance as well as to the weight or size of the letter. This meant that correspondents in cities, where distances were small and numbers of letters were large, could pay less than people on farms or remote villages. Also, the routes to such places were more expensive to establish and maintain, and thus residents of these areas had to be satisfied with slower, less frequent postal service. These two issues occupied the government and post office officials for much of the mid-nineteenth century. Eventually, the decision was made to lean in the direction of public service.

The post office grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, following the country’s fast-paced growth. There were only 75 post offices in the country in 1790, but by 1860, the number had increased to 28,498. Post roads increased in numbers, reaching as far west as Illinois in 1818.

In 1863, the rates paid for postal service were standardized so that instead of paying according to both the weight and the distance the mail must travel, rates would depend only on the weight of the letter. Thus the entire country paid a uniform rate, regardless of the distance that mail was carried.

Transportation

The first mail carriers were boats and pedestrians. Postal carriers delivered mail in the cities and between villages; however, most travel was on boats, along the coast or on rivers or lakes. The post office claims to have used about every kind of boat service, including rafts, rowboats, canoes, and horse-drawn canal boats. By 1811, steamboats became available, and the post office contracted with the steamboat companies to carry the mail. This fast, safe, and reliable method of transportation greatly increased the efficiency and coverage of the mail system. The coastal waters, rivers, canals, and lakes were soon busy with steamboats carrying passengers, freight, and the mail to almost all parts of the country.

Even the Far West’s mail was served by steamships. Although freight from the East Coast to the West Coast generally went around the southern tip of South America, the mail was shipped by steamer to Panama, where it was then carried overland by mule to the Pacific Ocean, where a steamship was waiting to carry it to California and the Oregon Territory. In 1855, a railroad was built across Panama, speeding up the travel time, but it still took at least three weeks to get a letter from New York to San Francisco.

The Pony ExpressPony Express was a spectacular business venture that has remained a legend of the West. In 1860, William Hepburn Russell, William HepburnRussell, who had tried unsuccessfully to interest the post office in the idea, decided to privately institute an express mail service overland to the West Coast. With two partners, he created the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, nicknamed the Pony Express. He hired the best horsemen he could find and located a large number of strong and healthy horses. He established new relay stations along his chosen route, which went from St. Joseph, Missouri (which was reached from the East by train), to California by way of the area that would become Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. Riders carried the mail in side pouches, covering seventy-five to one hundred miles at a time. Horses were quickly switched at each way station. In this way, mail was carried across the country at unheard-of speeds. The record was a mail packet carrying Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, which reached California in only seven days, seventeen hours. Spectacular though it was, the Pony Express lasted only a little more than a year. It was supplanted by the intercontinental telegraph line, which was completed in 1861, and by the trains that shortly afterward made their way west to the coast.

In the East, the Railroads;postal servicerailroads had been used for carrying mail since 1832. Their value in serving a growing clientele was recognized by Congress, which designated all railroads as mail routes, guaranteeing both their availability to the post office and a steady revenue for the railroads. In subsequent years, many long-run trains carried mail cars, and by 1864, the first officially designated railway post offices had been designated. Rural areas were often served on the fly by devices called mail cranes, which allowed the postal workers on board the trains to grab an outgoing mail bag from a hook without stopping the train and to drop the incoming mail bags for each destination. Sorting of the mail was done by the postal workers en route.

Railroad postal delivery remained a major component of the postal service well into the twentieth century. In 1930, more than ten thousand trains carried mail. However, after passenger trains began to be unprofitable, the government released them from obligatory operation, and mail transportation moved from the railroads to the increasingly dominant highways. The last railroad post office closed in 1977. Some mail, especially parcel post, continued to be carried by train. During the 1990’s, Amtrak experimented with hybrid vehicles that could travel partway by train and partway by road. Amtrak stopped carrying mail in 2004, and only a small fraction of the mail, mostly second- and third-class and parcel post, was carried by trains in the following years.

Highways Highwaysdominated the mail delivery for much of the twentieth century. During the early part of the century, the nation’s highway system grew rapidly as the number of automobiles grew. Federally supported highways, from U.S. Route 1 on the East Coast to Route 99 on the West Coast, created rapid and reliable routes for mail trucks. During the middle of the century, the building of interstate highways increased the speed of the mail service. By 2006, there were more than 16,000 designated highway contract routes across the country.

Airmail started experimentally in 1911 and was sufficiently promising so that it was authorized by Congress in 1916. Air transportation industryThe first regularly scheduled airmail service was a route from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1918. The post office’s use of airmail gave an important boost to the aircraft and airline industries. Much of the rapid development of air travel was instigated by the post office’s promotion of airports, weather stations, radio beacons, and other features essential to reliable air service. By the start of the twenty-first century, most mail in the United States was carried by air.

After 1913, when Parcel postparcel post was started, this new service stimulated a whole new kind of retail business. Catalog shoppingGiant mail-order houses, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward, sprang up, bringing the world of commerce to the previously unserved rural areas of the country. The post office’s low rates for parcel post stimulated business everywhere and made it possible for many more Americans to participate in the rising standard of living. By 2000, the government estimated that the value of the American mail-order industry had reached nearly $900 billion.

United States Postal Service

In 1971, Congress changed the administrative nature of the post office. It became the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the postmaster general was no longer a cabinet position. The postal service no longer had a near monopoly, and private operators began to provide competition, encouraging it to increase efficiency and to use more new technology. The USPS contracted with several private carriers, such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service, for the distribution of many parcels, to the benefit of customers. It still remains an immense operation and a vital one for the business community and the convenience of the American people.

Further Reading
  • Bruns, James H. Great American Post Offices. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Written by the director of the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, this fascinating book describes the architectural and social history of 250 famous post offices throughout the United States.
  • Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. This brief book is an authoritative account of the development of the post office during its first one hundred years and of its influence on the country’s growth.
  • Kielbowicz, Richard. News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860’s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989. The importance of the post office in communicating the news is well described in this historical account of the relationship of the news industry and its primary carrier, the post office. Until 1860, when the telegraph became available to the media, the post office was a vital element for dissemination of the news.
  • Luca, Eileen. Our Postal System. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1999. A short history of the post office, this clear and interesting book is intended for students but can be read with profit by anyone.
  • Shaw, Christopher. Preserving the People’s Post Office. Washington, D.C.: Essential Books, 2006. This book presents a convincing argument that the post office, as a major service that serves all the country’s people equally, is an essential national operation that could not be replaced by private industry.

Catalog shopping

E-mail

FedEx

Benjamin Franklin

Internet

Magazine industry

Pony Express

Postal savings banks

Shipping industry

Telecommunications industry

Categories: History Content