How the US Post Office Has Delivered the Mail Through the Decades
It is impossible to separate the history of the United States from the history of its post office. After all, Benjamin Franklin was made the country’s Postmaster General in 1775, after his fellow settlers rebelled against the British Royal Mail and created the Post Office Department, the precursor to the United States Postal Service (USPS).
Since then, the post office has made it their mission to deliver mail to all Americans, going further and faster to keep pace with the growing nation. From horse-drawn carriages to railroads to pneumatic tubes, here’s a brief history of how the post office delivered mail for nearly two and a half centuries.
The postal runners, the first postal carriers in American history, traveled a network of postal routes that the Constitution authorized the federal government to create. Roads connected small post offices, where people waited in long lines to collect their mail. By 1789, 75 post offices and approximately 2,400 miles of postal routes served a population of nearly 4 million.
By the late 1700s stagecoaches (large horse-drawn vehicles) had begun to replace individual riders on the roads. At the urging of Congress, the post office awarded contracts for stagecoach lines to help connect eastern communities to the expanding border. The Gold Rush opened the floodgates for western migration in the 1850s, and stagecoaches carried mail along new overland routes extending to California.
In 1813, six years after Robert Fulton launched the first viable commercial line of steamboats in New York City, Congress authorized the Postmaster General to contract with steamboat companies to carry mail. In the late 1820s, steamboats carried mail along the East Coast and down the Mississippi. Beginning in December 1848, US Mail traveled by steamboat to California via the Isthmus of Panama, a trip that lasted about three weeks.
Those looking for faster delivery might, for a short time at least, turn to the Pony Express, a private service that began operating between St. Joseph, Missouri and California in April 1860. Riders rode horses specially selected an average of 75 to 100 miles per day, changing horses at relay stations set at 10 to 15 mile intervals along the nearly 2,000 mile route; the trip took about 10 days, about half the time of regular ground mail. The post office contracted with the Pony Express for only a few months before the service closed in October 1861, shortly after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line.
Although the post office first transported mail via the “iron horse” in 1832, its use of the railroad entered a new era of efficiency after the Civil War, with the completion of the first railroad. of the country’s transcontinental iron. From the 1860s to the 1970s, clerks sorted and delivered mail on trains across the country; At its peak in the mid-20th century, the Railway Mail Service (RMS) would handle 93% of all non-local mail in the United States.
In 1899, an electric automobile collected mail from 40 mailboxes in Buffalo, New York in an hour and a half – less than half the time of a horse-drawn cart. The use of automobiles (electric and gasoline) increased after 1913, when postal carriers began delivering parcels as well as letters, and by 1933, only 2 percent of urban postal vehicles were horse-drawn. With the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, urban routes were first motorized, with Jeeps, sit-stand trucks, and small vehicles called “mailsters” among the earliest delivery vehicles.
The postal introduction of rural free delivery (door-to-door delivery to rural, not just urban addresses) in the early 1900s spurred the increased use of motor vehicles, and postal carriers also experimented with motorcycles as soon as they have become commercially available. The use of motorcycles to deliver mail peaked in the 1920s; after that they were replaced by four-wheeled automobiles and trucks with more space to hold letters and parcels.
The first authorized flight of the US Mail was in 1911, when aviator Earle Ovington flew his Bleriot monoplane between Garden City and Mineola, New York. In 1918, scheduled airmail service was launched, using pilots and planes borrowed from the military. Charles Lindbergh flew mail between Chicago and St. Louis in 1926, a year before making his historic non-stop flight across the Atlantic. In 1924, transcontinental airmail took one day, 10 hours and 20 minutes, compared to six to seven hours today.
During WWII, the post office helped Americans stay connected with loved ones fighting overseas (without carrying tons of letters by air) with Victory Mail or V-Mail, based on a technique developed originally by Eastman Kodak to process bank documents. Written on special lightweight writing paper that folded into its own envelope, letters from the United States were opened and microfilmed.
The film rolls were shipped to military stations overseas, where they were developed, after which printed copies of the letters were delivered to the soldiers. For letters from soldiers at home, the process has been reversed. In 1944, an Office of War Information fact sheet claimed that V-Mail had saved some 4,964,286 pounds in freight since its launch in mid-1942.
At the start of the 20th century, underground pneumatic tube systems connected postal facilities in each of the six American cities. Boxes containing up to 500 letters were placed in the tubes and propelled by pressurized air between the postal facilities at a speed of 30 mph. Suspended in 1918 amid the boom of more efficient automobiles, the pneumatic tube system was revived in the 1920s in New York and Boston, but retired for good in the early 1950s, ending to one of the post office’s more unconventional methods. used to deliver mail.