Skip to main content
Select Source:

Post Office

Post Office

Sources

Slow Service. In 1820 a letter sent from Baltimore regularly took three weeks to arrive in Saint Louis by boat and stagecoach while in the more-remote areas of the South the mails ran seldom, if at all, and stages never. By 1834 steamboats had cut delivery times substantially, but as one postmaster admitted, half the intelligence of the country is still carried in saddlebags. In the more-remote western frontier regions even the saddlebags were occasionally dispensed with. On the route from Green Bay to Chicago, about 250 miles, postal carriers had to walk with sixty pounds of mail, two sacks of parched corn, and blankets, along with an Indian guide to keep from getting lost.

High Rates. The nations vast distances hindered the efficient distribution of the mail, but high postal rates also cut down on the number of letters ordinary Americans exchanged. Originally organized as a division of the Treasury Department (until 1825), the Post Office was supposed to turn a profit for the government. Newspapers were delivered at reduced rates because of the importance of news for the informed citizenry of a self-governing republic, but other postal rates were set quite high: twenty-five cents to send a one-sheet letter more than four hundred miles, fifty cents for two sheets, and so on. To get their money worth correspondents took to filling a page horizontally, then turning letters on the side to write another layer on top of the first, and some times even adding a third set of diagonal lines on the same page. To avoid the high fees family members and friends often entrusted their letters to acquaintances traveling in the direction of the letters destination. By 1837 the Post Office handled only about two letters per person each year.

Politics. Another problem with the nations postal service was its susceptibility to political pressure, as post-masterships represented the primary source of patronage available to the president. In an era before civil service exams each change in party control in the White House could and usually did mean a widespread substitution of postmasters, who numbered seventeen thousand by 1850. Moreover, contracts to move the public mails were supposed to go to the lowest bidder in a competitive bidding process. Not coincidentally, those carrying companies tended to be controlled by adherents to the party in power, and these party men often failed to fulfill the requirements of their contracts.

Reform. Internal policy changes and the introduction of the railroad and telegraph changed the Post Office for good starting in the 1830s. By 1832 it took only thirty-six hours for a letter to get from Philadelphia to Boston. By 1840 postal employees were sorting mail between these major urban areas on special mail cars, cutting delivery time even more. At the same time Western cities could expect thrice-weekly deliveries from the East by the late 1830s. Meanwhile, the number of post offices increased rapidly, from three thousand in 1815 to seventeen thousand in 1850 (one for every eleven hundred citizens). The advent of rail service resulted in exponential savings to ordinary customers. Postal rates were reduced in 1846, 1851, and 1855. Prepaid postage stamps were introduced in 1847, and by 1851 a mother in New York could write a letter to her son in the California gold fields and expect to buy only a five-cent stamp to get it there.

THE GREAT POSTAL CAMPAIGN

In May 1835 the American Anti-Slavery Society tried to sow the good seed of abolition thoroughly over the whole country by putting its new steam-driven presses into overdrive and flooding the mails with antislavery newspapers and pamphlets calling for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved African Americans. But Southerners were in no mood to accept what they considered this new threat to their way of life. Mobs plundered packets of pamphlets and copies of the societys newspaper, The Liberator, from the Charleston post office and burned them in the public square. Other cities in the South followed suit. Several Southern legislatures placed bounties on Northern abolitionists, and violence against abolitionists broke out even in the North, where many considered abolitionism a threat to national unity. In October 1835 a mob in Boston seized William Lloyd Garrison (editor of The Liberator ) and proceeded to drag him through the streets.

When the mailings did not stop, President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder and cotton planter, ordered Postmaster General Amos Kendall to do something. At Kendalls instructions Southern postmasters instantly began cleansing the mail of abolitionist literature. Ironically, it was the suppression of the great postal campaign that illustrated how the new communications and transportation technologies could alter how Americans thought about slavery and thus alter the national balance of political power.

Source: James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors; The Abolitionist and American Slavery (New York: Hill & Wang, 1976).

Sources

R. Carlyle Buley, The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 18151840, 2 volumes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1950);

Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States Systems of Cities , 17901840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973);

George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 18151860, Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York; Holt, 1951).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Post Office." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Post Office." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/post-office

"Post Office." American Eras. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/post-office

Post Office

Post Office. Before the 17th cent., royal ministers had their own king's messengers, but private persons sent letters through servants or friends. Henry VIII, had a master of the posts in 1512 but he served only the government. The first attempt at a public system was in 1635 when a service was established to important towns, carrying letters at 2 pence per sheet per 80 miles. Under the Commonwealth, Thurloe was appointed postmaster-general in 1657 and the arrangement was continued at the Restoration. In 1680 a London penny post was started and soon taken over by the government; penny posts were established in large provincial towns in the later 18th cent. Members of both Houses of Parliament had the privilege of free postage (save for the penny post) and gave large numbers of franks to friends, constituents, or even business colleagues: the privilege was not abolished until 1840. Two 18th-cent. developments were Ralph Allen's scheme of cross-country services, followed by John Palmer's introduction of scheduled mail coaches. Rowland Hill's plan of penny postage was adopted in 1840 in the teeth of powerful opposition: prepayment through stamps was introduced and there was no extra charge for mileage. It was followed in the 1850s by the introduction of pillar boxes (a suggestion of Anthony Trollope), which put an end to the bellmen who had rung for final collections. The services offered by post offices proliferated—the introduction of telegrams delivered by messenger boys; the establishment by Gladstone in 1861 of the Post Office Savings Bank; and the beginning of parcel post in 1883. Penny post was a casualty of the First World War, the rate going up to 1½ pence in June 1918, and after the Second World War inflation brought constant increases. The start of the use of post offices for a variety of welfare payments was the decision in 1908 to deliver old-age pensions through them.

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Post Office." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Post Office." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office

"Post Office." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office

Post Office

Post Office UK public corporation formed in 1969 from the General Post Office (GPO). Mail delivery, its sole function until the 19th century, is still a Post Office monopoly. Private post, at rates related to distance, started in 1635; Hill's penny post of 1840 standardized the rate. The GPO set up a savings bank in 1861, a telegraph service in 1870, and nationalized existing private telephone companies in 1912.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Post Office." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Post Office." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office

"Post Office." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office

post office

post of·fice • n. 1. the public department or corporation responsible for postal services and (in some countries) telecommunications. ∎  a building where postal business is carried on. 2. a game, played esp. by children, in which imaginary letters are delivered in exchange for kisses.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"post office." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"post office." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/post-office

"post office." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/post-office

post office

post office: see postal service.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"post office." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"post office." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office

"post office." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/post-office