How the Post Office Created America

How the Post Office Created America:  A History
© 2016 Winifred Gallagher
336 pages

Once the conduit of revolution, then a mainstay of communities both rural and urban, the post office has fallen on rough times as of late.   Amid speculation that its services may be ended altogether, Winifried Gallagher offers a praiseful history of the US postal service, arguing that it helped the colonies establish independence and a national identity, preserved it as its citizens expanded west, and advanced the American dream by opening itself to women and ethnic minorities earlier than any other branch of the federal leviathan.  How the Post Office Created America  delivers a social history of the United States, centered on the post office but not limited to it, Gallagher also explores how the postal service influenced American culture, from  encouraging a republic of letter-writers to the inclusion of Mr. McFeely of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. (Kidding about that last one. In a grievious oversight, the author neglects to so much as mention the much-loved postman.)

The story begins with Ben Franklin and Benjamin Rush, who believed that a good postal service was essential to the republican experiment.   A republic needed informed citizens; informed citizens needed ready information. In those days that meant newspapers, and their circulation was promoted by heavily subsidized rates. How subsidized? In a day when a letter cost $0.50 to make it from New York to New Orleans, a newspaper could make the same trip for $0.015.   In days before telegraphs, let alone telephones and the internet,  the mail service was a vital part of everyday life. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled that even in the frontier, rural villages received mail at least once a week.

Gallagher largely focused on the 19th century, that fascinating period in which the early republic transformed  and filled an entire continent. In its beginnings, the postal service consisted of men on horseback, delivering saddlebags to general stores where the proprietor was also the local postmaster.   A century later,  the postal service had massive infrastructure and had literally redrawn the political map, as homes were given distinct addresses and later ZIP codes to allow for efficient and accurate delivery. Gallagher marks key points in the postal service’s evolution,  from the adoption of rural and city free delivery to the implementation of stamps. The postal service’s  pricing scheme inadvertently promoted both cheap paperbacks (they could be shipped as periodicals) and the first reams of junk mail.  The early embrace of the railroad system created a golden age for the post office, and the trains themselves offered the unique ability to sort mail in the process of transportation.  The postal service effectively subsidized the creation of American commercial aviation,  as all of the early airlines relied on mail contracts to establish themselves to the point that they could build passenger service.  As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the post office became more professional in its organization;  early administrations used it to reward their friends, giving away pork positions to their cronies, but the “spoils” system was largely dismantled in favor of a more meritocratic one, with post office employees required to sit for a civil service examination.

As American society became more technologically complex, with sophisticated transportation and communication networks, the postal service’s   prominence faded. Early on, Americans debating the nature of the post office decided that while it wasn’t a business that had to support itself solely on its income, it did need to support itself as much as possible while at the same time being supported enough by the public to keep pace with rural expansion. In the 20th century,  with the country fully developed and competing networks now in existence, the debate over its future and nature resurfaced.  The hybrid public-private elements of the office created conflicts of interest:   if the institution was expected to support itself like a business, it was only fair that it be allowed the same freedom of action as other businesses, like expanding its services. At the same time, it was hardly proper for a publicly-funded entity to go into competition against private citizens by offering commercial photocopying and banking.  Gallagher notes that the post office has been increasingly weakened by recession and constrained by Congress , to the point that it seems to be headed for insolvency. She urges readers to take stock of the post office’s long, pivotal role in American history and urge their local congresscritter  to take action.

While I strongly doubt the post office will disappear,  business as usual certainly can’t last for long.  The volume of mail sent by Americans continues to fall by the year,  especially  lucrative first class mail.  Parcel delivery is up, as the private  shippers sometimes use the USPS as their last-leg for home deliveries, but that’s only a small contribution to the bottom line.  At any rate, How the Post Office Created America is a fun social history, albeit one written by someone who is not a historian but  who seems to write pop-nonfiction.  That’s not a criticism — I’m a generalist myself, and have to appreciate someone whose books cover attention, the post office, the power of place,  houses, God, heredity,  novelty,  and purses. 

Related “Making of America”-esque books:
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph, Tom Standage
Empires of Light:  Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World,  Jill Jonnes
The Great Railroad Revolution, Christian Wolmar

Related:
Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West,  Phillip Fradkin. Wells Fargo established itself as a rival against the postal service, which struggled in a way to achieve fast service between California and the eastern US.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to How the Post Office Created America

  1. I love histories like this. I also added Stagecoach to my TBR.

  2. Stephen says:

    I'll have a few more in this 'Making of America' type this year — “The Network”, and perhaps one on how GPS has changed society.

  3. Mudpuddle says:

    fascinating subject… i can't believe that the stupid government would privatize it; imagine $5 to send a letter! no boundaries for the greedy, i guess…

  4. Stephen says:

    It takes a lot of people, machines, and infrastructure to get those letters where they're going! I pay $4 on amazon for having a box shipped from a distribution center to my post office. There are a lot more steps with private mail..

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