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United States Postal Service

United States Postal Service

475 LEnfant Plaza S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20260-0010
U.S.A.
Telephone: (202) 268-2500
Fax: (202) 268-4860
Web site: http://www.usps.gov

Government-Owned Company Founded: 1775
Employees: 792,041
Sales: $62.70 billion (1999)
NAIC: 491110 Postal Services Operated by U.S. Postal Service

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is an independent government agency that generates income through postage and other fees. With a monopoly on the delivery of noncritical mail, the USPS delivers about 40 percent of the worlds mail, or more than 200 billion pieces of mail annually. Beginning in the 1990s, the USPS faced increased competition from rival package delivery and courier services, as well as the Internet. In anticipation of the widespread use of e-mail and other e-commerce services, the USPS focused on developing Internet strategies, such as computerized postage and online delivery tracking of packages.

Early History: The Birth of the United States and the Federal Post Office in the 1700s

The Post Office Department had roots in America dating back to the 17th century, when there was a need for correspondence between colonial settlements and transatlantic exchange of information with England, the native country of most eastern seaboard settlers. The earliest mail services were disorganized at best, with no uniform system in place until 1691, when Thomas Neale established a North American postal service under a British Crown grant and, in absentia, appointed Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey his deputy postmaster general. Thereafter, under the control of the British government, a centralized if erratic postal service operated in the colonies. In 1737, Deputy Postmaster General Alexander Spotswood, who had served as lieutenant governor of Virginia, named Benjamin Franklin, then 31, postmaster of Philadelphia. Franklin became joint postmaster general of the colonies and undertook important reforms that led to a more efficient, regular, and quicker mail service.

Mistrust of the royal postal service led to changes on the eve of the American Revolution. In 1774, the Crown dismissed Franklin because of his activities on behalf of the rebellious colonies. The colonists responded by setting up the separate Constitutional Post under the leadership of William Goddard. At the time of the first Continental Congress in 1775, Goddards service provided inter-colonial service through 30 post offices operating between New Hampshire and Virginia.

The Continental Congress named Franklin chairman of a committee empowered to make recommendations for the establishment of a postal service. On July 26, 1775, the Congress approved the committees plans, establishing the organization from which the U.S. Postal Service traces its direct descent and which, after the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is the second oldest federal department. The Congress wisely appointed Franklin the first Postmaster General. Although Franklin served just a brief period, until November 7, 1776, he is generally credited with being the chief architect of the modern postal service.

It was not until after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 that a law passed on September 22, 1789, created the federal post office under the new government of the United States. It also established the Office of the Postmaster General. President Washington named Samuel Osgood to that post four days later. At the time there were 75 post offices and approximately 2,000 miles of post roads.

Additional legislation in the 1790s strengthened the U.S. Post Office by expanding its responsibilities and codifying its regulations. It remained in Philadelphia, the seat of the federal government, until 1800, when in just two wagons it moved all of its furniture, records, and supplies to Washington, D.C., the nations new capital.

The chief focus of the efforts of postal officials from the inception of the Post Office to the present day has been on ways to achieve a more efficient and effective mail service. Finding the best methods of transporting and directing mail have always been of primary concern. As a result, the Post Office has played a significant part in the development and subsidization of new modes of transportation. Willing to experiment in the handling and delivery of mail, the Post Office was quick to try out new inventions and policies, even some disastrous ones that led to scornful criticism and ridicule.

Rapid Expansion in the 1800s

During the 19th century, a citizenry hesitant to accept things new and different watched comparatively rapid changes transform the postal service into a remarkable public convenience. By the start of the 1800s, the Post Office Department had bought several stagecoaches for transporting both mail and passengers on the nations post roads. Its patronage led to better stagecoach design, ensuring improved comfort and safety, and to better roads. In addition, a full ten years before waterways became official post roads in 1823, the Post Office had begun using steamboats to transport mail between river-linked towns that shared no common road. By 1831, it had begun sending mail short distances via trainstheiron horses that many people denounced as demonic devicesand five years later awarded its first mail contract to a rail carrier.

Until replaced by automobiles and trucks at the beginning of the 20th century, horses remained major mail carriers, even over long distances, particularly during the period of westward expansion preceding the establishment of transcontinental telegraph and railway services. With the end of the Mexican War and the California gold rush of 1848, the need for effective communication between Atlantic and Pacific coastal cities quickly intensified. In that same year, the Post Office Department contracted a steamship company to carry mail to California. Ships from New York carried mail to Panama, where it was transported across the isthmus, then by ship again to San Francisco. The service was supposed to take between three and four weeks, a goal seldom realized in practice, and the Post Office sought alternative methods for getting the mail across North America in a more expeditious fashion.

In 1858, an overland service was contracted with a stage line, the Overland Mail Company, operating on a 2,800-mile route between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. Semi-weekly stagecoaches began carrying mail in September of that year. The service was prone to problems, however, and the advertised delivery time of 24 days in practice often ran into months. A solution was attempted by the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, which, without a contract with the Post Office, in 1860 began operating a mail carrier service between St Joseph, Missouri, and California. It was popularly known as the Pony Express. Changing mounts at established relay stations, riders could cover more than 100 miles per day. In March 1861, the Pony Express carried President Lincolns inaugural address over the route in less than eight days, encouraging the Post Office to put the service under federal contract. It began operations under that arrangement in July 1861, but with the transcontinental telegraph hookup on October 24, 1861, the celebrated service, rendered instantly obsolete, was halted.

Some important procedural and organizational changes also marked the pre-Civil War development of the Post Office. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson invited Postmaster General William T. Barry to sit as a cabinet member, although Jackson had no formal authority for the move. Although Barrys predecessor, John McLean, had in fact begun calling the service the Post Office Department even earlier, it was not until 1872, after the Civil War, that Congress officially recognized it as such. A year after Barry took his cabinet seat under Jackson, the Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations was created as an investigative arm of the Post Office. It was headed by P.S. Loughborough, generally regarded as the first Chief Postal Inspector. In addition, by 1840 all railroads in the United States had been designated as postal routes, which quickly expanded rail service, the main means of moving large quantities of mail well into the next century.

Initially, mail was not sent in envelopes. Writers would simply fold their letters and address them, then drop them off at post offices where their correspondents would pick them up. In larger cities, there was a local delivery system that charged an extra fee for carrying mail to homes and businesses. An important innovation was the postage stamp, first issued in 1847 and followed by its mandatory prepayment use in 1855. Prepaid postage helped facilitate a new system of free city delivery, which by 1863 was available in 49 cities.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy created its own Post Office Department, with John H. Reagan serving as Postmaster General. Although Reagan was appointed on March 6, 1861, it was a full two months before the Union Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, stopped the federal mail service to the secessionist states. The war, with Union blockades of Confederate ports and its eventual invasion, seriously impeded postal service in the South. Even at the end of the war, with the restitution of the federal post, mail delivery was irregular. As late as November 1866, less than half of the post offices in the South had been fully restored to service.

Company Perspectives:

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

After the Civil War,post offices on wheels, or mail cars, came into rapidly expanding use. They had first appeared during the war, in 1862, but it was not until August 1864 that an official Post Office route was put in operation between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Other routes quickly followed, providing mail sorting and handling services while trains were in transit. At first only letters were handled on the postal cars, but by 1869 all other types except parcels were being processed. The use ofpost offices on wheels would continue to grow well into the 20th century. In 1930, when trains were still the most viable means of long-distance hauling, more than 10,000 of them were used to carry mail to every city and rural town in the country. They would still be used into the 1970s, after the reorganization of the Post Office Department as the U.S. Postal Service, but very sparingly. The Transportation Act of 1958 had earlier insured their quick decline, so that by 1965 only 190 trains still carried and processed mail. The last to do so, which ran between New York and Washington, made its final run on June 30,1977.

Continued Growth in the Early 1900s

The invention of the horseless carriage and the airplane had much to do with declining use of mail cars and railroading in general. Both were extremely important in the changing face of the Post Office as it sought to provide service to the most isolated communities. Near the end of the 19th century, it inaugurated a system of rural free delivery (RFD) in a nation still in the process of shifting from an agrarian to an industrial society. Experiments with RFD were begun in West Virginia in 1896, despite vituperative complaints about its exorbitant cost and general impracticality. It was, however, a great boon to farm residents throughout the United States. It also stimulated the building and improvement of roads and highways, because service was provided only in places that had acceptable roads. So that local residents could qualify for RFD, town and county governments undertook these changes at public cost.

Improved roads were, of course, inevitable, thanks to the automobile. In the same year that it inaugurated RFD, the Post Office began experimenting with thehorseless wagon and in 1901 awarded its first contract for a horseless carrier covering a short route in Buffalo. For the next decade the Post Office contracted such services through private companies, but in 1914, fed up with excessive charges and fraudulent practices, it requested and obtained the authority to establish its own motorized fleet of carriers. Two years before that, the Post Office had won another fight with private companies when it obtained permission to put in place its parcel post service, a move that stimulated the rapid growth of mail-order merchandising.

After World War I, which provided a proving ground for the flying machine, the Post Office undertook a serious expansion into airmail service. As early as 1911 it had experimented with the airplane, sponsoring several flights at fairs and meets in more than two dozen states. In 1916, during the war, Congress even authorized a transfer of funds for the purpose, but it was not until 1918 that airmail service was begun in earnest. Using planes and pilots on loan from the Army Signal Corps, the Post Office began the first regular airmail service, between New York and Washington, D.C., on May 15 of that year. The date marked an important moment both in the history of the Post Office and commercial aviation.

The Post Office soon took complete control of the service, using its own planes and pilots, and despite reliance on primitive equipment and a lack of all navigational aids and weather data, compiled a remarkable safety record. The public was at first reluctant to pay the 24 cents charged for airmail letters, but interest picked up by 1920, when, on September 8, the last links were made to connect New York and San Francisco. By 1926, when the Post Office began contracting service with commercial airlines, it had won several awards for its pioneer work in night flying, the development of navigational aids, and the general advance of aviation in the United States. The transfer of equipment and stations to the Department of Commerce and municipalities was completed by 1927, when the Post Office put all airmail service under contract to independent carriers.

The Post Offices methods of sorting and distributing of mail were, unfortunately, considerably less innovative. Despite some earlier experimentation with canceling and sorting machines, the oldpigeonhole method of sorting and distributing mail remained in practice until the mid-1950s, when the Post Office began a serious effort to automate mail handling. It started issuing contracts for the development of a number of mechanical devicesfrom letter and parcel sorters to facer-cancelers and address readers.

Leading the way toward automation was a parcel sorting machine first used in Baltimore in 1956, but it was quickly followed by the importation and use of the Transmora, a foreign-manufactured, multi-position letter sorter. This was in turn superseded by an American machine, first tested in 1959, which remained in wide use into the 1970s. Other devices placed in service in the 1960s, when the mechanization program greatly accelerated, included Mark II facer-cancelers and a high-speed optical character reader (OCR) capable of sorting mail by the new ZIP (Zoning Improvement Plan) Codes.

The ever-increasing volume and change in the principal type of mail had made the changes mandatory. Most mail sent before World War II had been private correspondence, but by 1963, 80 percent had become business mail. The computer, an indispensable business tool, already had begun to play an important part in the rapid growth of business mail.

Key Dates:

1691:
An American postal service, under control of the British government, is established.
1737:
Benjamin Franklin becomes the postmaster general of the colonies.
1775:
A U.S. postal service is established.
1789:
The U.S. Constitution is adopted and the federal post office is formed.
1847:
The first postage stamp is issued.
1855:
Prepayment for postage becomes mandatory.
1872:
The postal service is officially recognized by Congress as the Post Office Department.
1914:
The Post Office Department forms its own fleet of motorized carriers.
1918:
Formal airmail service is introduced.
1963:
The Zip Code system is introduced.
1970:
The Post Office Department is reorganized as the United States Postal Service (USPS) and becomes an independent agency.
1999:
USPS introduces Delivery Confirmation service and PC Postage.

Reorganization and Modern Innovation: 1970s Through the 1980s

On August 12, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed Public Law 91-375, which reorganized the federal Post Office Department as the United States Postal Service. Under the new law, which went into effect on July 1, 1971, the Service emerged as an independent agency of the executive branch, no longer under the control of Congress. Operational authority passed to a President-appointed and Senate-approved Board of Governors and a managerial infrastructure, headed by the Postmaster General named by the Governors. No longer a cabinet member, the Postmaster General became the Service CEO. The law gave the new agency the authority to issue public bonds to finance operations and to engage in collective bargaining between management and union representatives. It also established a postal rate-setting policy and procedure regulated by the independent Postal Rate Commission.

The reorganization and partial privatization of the Post Office Department was undertaken to solve difficulties that by the 1960s had made its traditional operation an ineffective and financially disastrous albatross for the American taxpayer. Because the rates charged for services no longer bore any relationship to their actual cost, the Post Office had come to depend heavily on federal subsidies, rendering it increasingly susceptible to the vicissitudes of partisan politics. Furthermore, the managerial organization had turned into a bureaucratic maze, with a blurring of the lines of authority and fragmented control. Underfunding also had meant a continued reliance on antiquated facilities and equipment and mail-handling methods that, except for the introduction of the ZIP Code in 1963, had not changed since the turn of the century, despite a vastly expanded volume of mail. The resulting inefficiency led to long delays in service, with jams that from time to time brought it to a virtual standstill, like that at the Chicago Post Office in 1966.

Along with the need to update both equipment and procedures, there was a clear need to reorganize management. In particular, labor-management relations had badly deteriorated in the 1960s. In March 1970, during Congressional deliberations on postal reforms, poor relations led to a six-day work stoppage involving about 152,000 employees at 671 locations. For many postal workers, the proposed changes, including a salary increase, were simply not substantial enough. The workers returned to their jobs, however, when the Postmaster General agreed to give the postal workers unions a major part in planning reforms.

The most important problem faced by the newly created USPS was the upward spiraling volume of mail and the lack of adequate physical resources and equipment for handling it. Between 1970 and 1980, the volume of mail grew from just less than 85 billion to 106.3 billion pieces, an increase of almost 20 percent. Alarmingly, it grew to 166.3 billion by 1990, and although the rate of growth abated thereafter, the problem of handling that quantity of mail remained formidable.

To deal with the increasing volumes of mail, the U.S. Postal Service updated equipment and sought new methods of improving its mail-handling efficiency. In 1978, it developed an expanded ZIP Code, which helped reduce the number of times mail had to be handled. In 1982, to exploit fully the revised ZIP Codes, the Postal Service installed its first computer-operated OCRs and barcode sorters (BCSs) and the next year introduced the ZIP+ 4 code to further define address sectors in any geographical area. By 1985, the new equipment and ZIP Code refinements had made it possible for each key postal center to process 24,000 pieces of mail per hour, making it approximately four times as efficient as it had been using older sorting machines. By 1992, the Service also began replacing older facer-cancelers, the Mark II and M-36 models, with a more advanced facer-canceler system (AFCS), which, processing 30,000 pieces of mail per hour, proved twice as fast as the older models. Put in use, too, were multi-line optical character readers (MLOCRs), which, in conjunction with remote bar coding systems (RBCSs), were capable of sorting even hand-addressed envelopes after they had been sprayed with an identifying barcode. These automated mail-handling machines and procedures vastly improved the ability of the Service to handle the growing volume of mail efficiently.

Increased cost was the downside of improved efficiency, however. Between 1975 and 1985, the first-class letter rate rose from ten to 22 cents, and by 1995 it had increased to 32 cents, with proportional increases in other classes and types of mail. The greater expense to customers joined with a general slowdown in the economy quickly led to a slower rate of growth in the volume of mail in the early 1990s. In fact, in 1991, it declined for the first time in 15 years.

The drop was also the result of growing competition, made possible, ironically enough, by the computer, the device that had played such an important role in the growth in the mail volume during the 1970s and 1980s. Fax machines, e-mail on the Internet, electronic money transfers, and increasingly competitive telecommunication rates offered viable and often preferred alternatives to thesnail mail handled by the Postal Service. Many businesses that traditionally circulated advertisements via third-class mail, unhappy with the increasing rates, sought relief in telemarketing alternatives. Many mail order shippers also turned to USPS competitors including United Parcel Service (UPS), which offered a quicker and more convenient package delivery service.

Restructuring and Meeting the Challenges of the Future: 1990s

That competition caused the USPS, led by Postmaster General Marvin Runyon, who began his tenure in 1992, to undertake some restructuring. Of focal concern were customer needs and how these might best be met. In response, the Service instituted Customer Advisory Councils, made up of groups of interested citizens who worked closely with local postal managers to identify public concerns. There were 500 such councils in place by the summer of 1993. The USPS also issued contracts with private firms to measure customer satisfaction with the mail service. Efforts to reduce bureaucracy and costs, improve customer relations, and stabilize postal rates followed. A downsizing program reduced the upper echelon personnel by one half, and, without layoffs or furloughs, cut other overhead positions by 30,000 through a policy of early retirements and other incentives. At the same time, it made strides toward its automation goals, which by 1994 were less than half realized. Estimates in that year were that 12,000 automation units would be in place and operating by 1997, a considerable increase over the 4,000 put in place between 1991 and 1994.

Downsizing and restructuring helped the Postal Service considerably, but in the mid-1990s it still faced recurring problems that related to its massive size. For example, it was straddled with retirement benefit costs that totaled more than ten percent of its sales, one of many reasons why it operated with an annual deficit. Its size, however, simply reflected the daunting nature of its task. The Postal Service handled 40 percent of the worlds mail, processing about 580 million items per day. It employed the largest civilian workforce in the nation, operated a transportation network using more than 200,000 vehicles, and utilized more than 250 million square feet of owned or leased office and storage space. Moreover, despite its ungainly size, it remained doggedly efficient in its primary mission: to get mail where it was supposed to go and, usually, on time.

As the USPS headed toward the 21st century, it continued to focus on implementing its restructuring strategy and to keep pace with its competitors, which included the ever-threatening Internet. By 1998, the Postal Service acknowledged, operations were being affected by the growing popularity of computerized banking and online bill-paying services. Bills, payments, and statements accounted for 25 percent of the USPSs business, and increased usage of online services threatened to significantly hurt the Services revenues. As the Postal Service strove to function effectively in the competitive atmosphere, it faced criticism from various business groups, particularly UPS, which contended that the USPS was a monopoly that used its revenues to finance products and projects that unfairly competed against private business.

The Postal Service also faced some internal challenges during the mid-1990s when Loren Smith, the senior vice-president of marketing for the USPS from 1994 to 1996, confirmed that he exceeded his 1995 advertising budget of $140 million by 62 percent, or $87 million. Smith was also responsible for launching a variety of new marketing programs, including offering postal paraphernalia, such as T-shirts and mugs, at post offices, redesigning post offices, and selling prepaid phone cards. Although the sale of USPS logo-emblazoned products did well, the Service chose to discontinue the business in 1998 as it strayed a bit too far from the core mission of the USPS. The USPS also faced criticism from the General Accounting Office, which reported in late 1998 that the Postal Service had spent about $234 million since 1995 to develop new business but had only recovered $149 million in new revenues.

Despite these challenges, the USPS enjoyed strong revenues and growth in operations in the late 1990s. A five-year investment program of $17 billion was implemented in 1995, and the USPS committed to investing in modernizing and automating numerous operations and acquiring new vehicles and facilities. In 1998 alone, the Service spent more than $3 billion to improve facilities, purchase vehicles, and acquire mail processing equipment. Also in 1998, the USPS reported positive net income for the fourth consecutive year, lowered debt from $9.9 billion in 1992 to $6.4 billion, and maintained steady postal rates for the fourth straight year. William J. Henderson was named Postmaster General in May when Marvin Runyon returned to the private sector. The Service attempted to update its stodgy image in 1998 as well with a $15 million advertising campaign. The campaign, which included television, print, and radio ads, used the theme,Fly Like an Eagle, and television commercials employed the Steve Miller Band song of the same name. The ads were designed to position the USPS as a progressive and modern organization.

The U.S. Postal Service continued to improve operations and prepare for the future in 1999. At the beginning of the year postal rates increased by 2.9 percent, or one cent for standard letters. The rate hike was the first in four years and was also the lowest increase to date. In March the Service launched its Delivery Confirmation service, enabling customers to track packages sent via Priority Mail and Parcel Post. The new service made the USPS more competitive with companies such as UPS and FedEx, which had long offered tracking services. A month later, the USPS introduced Priority Mail Global Guaranteed, which provided two-day guaranteed service to a number of countries in western Europe. The service was available in major metropolitan markets and expansion to additional countries was planned.

Foreseeing the impact of the Internet on its business, the Postal Service explored various Internet opportunities and offered a number of services on its web site, including information about the USPS and the ability to order supplies, calculate rates, and track the location of packages. In August 1999 the USPS introduced online postage services, known as PC Postage. The Service had worked for more than three years with private businesses to develop a standard for digital postage. Companies independently developed PC Postage products, which allowed customers to buy and print postage on their computers, and sought approval by the Postal Service. Two companies, E-Stamp Corporation and Stamps.com Inc., gained approval for commercial distribution in 1999. The USPS also launched a web sitewww.usprioritymail.com designed to generate Priority Mail sales to online retailers. Generally, the majority of e-commerce companies used one delivery company, and the Postal Service hoped to increase its share. The site offered free software for online retailers to download and incorporate into their own web sites. The USPS also worked on developing PostalOne!, an information system geared toward large customers that would support the acceptance of bulk mail, postage payment, transportation, and data exchange.

The USPS enjoyed a fifth consecutive year of positive net income in 1999, reporting net income of $363 million on revenues of $62.7 billion. The Service handled a record 200 billion pieces of mail and achieved increased productivity as well. Despite the positive figures, the USPS noted that unexpected expenses arose, including an additional $100 million for health benefits and an outlay of $300 million for Y2K issues. The postponement of a postal rate increase until January 1999 reduced the Services projected income by $800 million. The cutting of expenditures by $1 billion, however, helped offset the declines.

Although the USPS was forced to shift gears to remain viable in a rapidly changing environment, its fundamental purpose remained the sameto deliver mail. Postal Service spokesperson Judy de Torok commented on the changing climate in the Boston Globe: Our goal is to have mail remain relevant to the American public.... For us the challenge is, how do we continue to reach customers in the electronic world?As the USPS entered the new millennium, the question remained unanswered, but the Service was committed to the ongoing search for solutions.

Principal Competitors

United Parcel Service, Inc.; FedEx Corporation; DHL Worldwide Express.

Further Reading

Atkinson, Helen,Postal Service to Compete for Delivery of Goods Bought Online, Journal of Commerce, August 30, 1999, p. 5.

Bruns, James H, Mail on the Move, Polo, 111.: Transportation Trails, 1992.

Cullinan, Gerald, The Office Department, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.

, The United States Postal Service, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1973.

Ferrara, Peter J, ed., Free the Mail: Ending the Postal Monopoly, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1990.

Fleishman, Joel L., ed., The Future of the Postal Service, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1983.

Gay, Lance,Postal Service Losing Money in Its New Lines, Houston Chronicle, November 28, 1998, p. 19.

Jackson, Donald Dale, Flying the Mail, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982.

Lewis, Diane E.,Postal Service Leans Toward Overhaul in E-Mail Era, Boston Globe, December 5, 1999, p. El.

Krause, Kristin S.,USPS Stirs the Pot, Traffic World, May 4, 1998, p. 42.

Long, Bryant A., and William J. Dennis, Mail by Rail: The Story of the Postal Transportation Service, New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp., 1951.

Scheele, Carl H, A Short History of the Mail Service, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1970.

Sorkin, Alan L., The Economics of the Postal System: Alternatives and Reform, Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980.

Summerfield, Arthur E., U.S. Mail: The Story of the United States Postal Service, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Teinowitz, Ira,Postal Idea Man Goes $87 Mil Overboard on Ad Plans, Advertising Age, October 21, 1996.

The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Public Enterprise, Dover, Mass.: Auburn House Publishing Co., 1992.

U.S. Post Office Department, A Brief History of the United States Postal Service, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933.

John W. Fiero

updated by Mariko Fujinaka

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"United States Postal Service." International Directory of Company Histories. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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United States Postal Service

United States Postal Service

475 LEnfant Plaza S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20260
U.S.A.
(202) 268-2000
Fax: (202) 268-2175

Government-Owned Company
Founded: 1775
Employees:
728,944
Sales: $49.25 billion

The United States Postal Service is the executive branch of the U.S. governments largest independent agency. The service employs the countrys largest civilian work force, which processes and delivers millions of pieces of mail every day. While increased competition in the mid-1990s was emerging from such independent courier services as Federal Express, UPS, Airborne Freight, and others, the service remained by far the most widely used mail delivery service in the United States.

On August 12, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed Public Law 91-375, which reorganized the federal Post Office Department as the United States Postal Service (USPS). Under the new law, which went into effect on July 1, 1971, the Service emerged as an independent agency of the executive branch, no longer under the control of Congress. Operational authority passed to a President-appointed and Senate-approved Board of Governors, and a managerial infrastructure, headed by the Postmaster General named by the Governors. No longer a cabinet member, the Postmaster General became the Service CEO. The law also gave the new agency the authority to issue public bonds to finance operations and to engage in collective bargaining between management and union representatives. It also established a postal rate-setting policy and procedure regulated by the independent Postal Rate Commission.

The reorganization and partial privatization of the Post Office Department was undertaken to solve difficulties that by the 1960s had made its traditional operation an ineffective and financially disastrous albatross for the American taxpayer. Because the rates charged for services no longer bore any relationship to their actual cost, the Post Office had come to depend heavily on federal subsidies, rendering it increasingly susceptible to the vicissitudes of partisan politics. Furthermore, the managerial organization had turned into a bureaucratic maze, with a blurring of the lines of authority and fragmented control. Underfunding had also meant a continued reliance on antiquated facilities and equipment and mail-handling methods that, except for the introduction of the ZIP (Zoning Improvement Plan) Code in 1963, had not changed since the turn of the century, despite a vastly expanded volume of mail. The resulting inefficiency led to long delays in service, with jams that from time to time brought it to a virtual standstill, like that at the Chicago Post Office in 1966.

Along with the need to update both equipment and procedures, there was a clear need to reorganize management. In particular, labor-management relations had badly deteriorated in the 1960s. In March 1970, during Congressional deliberations on postal reforms, poor relations led to a six-day work stoppage involving about 152,000 employees at 671 locations. For many postal workers, the proposed changes, including a salary increase, were simply not substantial enough. However, the workers returned to their jobs when the Postmaster General agreed to giving the postal workers unions a major part in planning reforms.

The restructuring of the Post Office Department as the U. S. Postal Service was a major overhaul of a federal department with roots in America dating back to the 17th century, when there was a need for correspondence between colonial settlements and trans-Atlantic exchange of information with England, the native country of most eastern seaboard settlers. The earliest mail services were disorganized and at best chaotic, with no uniform system in place until 1691, when Thomas Neale established a North American postal service under a British Crown grant and, in absentia, appointed Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey his deputy postmaster general. Thereafter, under the control of the British Government, a centralized if erratic postal service operated in the colonies. In 1737, Deputy Postmaster General Alexander Spotswood, who had served as lieutenant governor of Virginia, named Benjamin Franklin, then 31, postmaster of Philadelphia. Franklin became joint postmaster general of the colonies and undertook important reforms that led to a more efficient, regular, and quicker mail service.

Mistrust of the royal postal service led to changes on the eve of the American Revolution. In 1774, the Crown dismissed Franklin because of his activities on behalf of the rebellious colonies. The colonists responded by setting up the separate Constitutional Post under the leadership of William Goddard. At the time of the first Continental Congress in 1775, Goddards service provided inter-colonial service through 30 post offices operating between New Hampshire and Virginia.

The Continental Congress named Franklin chairman of a committee empowered to make recommendations for the establishment of a postal service. On July 26, 1775, the Congress approved the committees plans, establishing the organization from which the U. S. Postal Service traces its direct descent and which, after the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is the second oldest federal department. The Congress wisely appointed Franklin the first Postmaster General. Although Franklin served just a brief period, until November 7, 1776, he is generally credited with being the chief architect of the modern postal service.

It was not until after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 that a law passed on September 22, 1789 created the federal post office under the new government of the United States. It also established the Office of the Postmaster General. President Washington named Samuel Osgood to that post four days later. At the time there were 75 post offices and approximately 2,000 miles of post roads.

Additional legislation in the 1790s strengthened the U. S. Post Office by expanding its responsibilities and codifying its regulations. It remained in Philadelphia, the seat of the federal government, until 1800, when in just two wagons it moved all its furniture, records, and supplies to Washington, D.C., the nations new capital.

The chief focus of the efforts of postal officials from the inception of the Post Office to the present day has been on ways to achieve a more efficient and effective mail service. Finding the best methods of transporting and directing mail have always been of primary concern. As a result, the Post Office has played a significant part in the development and subsidization of new modes of transportation. Willing to experiment in the handling and delivery of mail, the Post Office was quick to try out new inventions and policies, even some disastrous ones that led to scornful criticism and ridicule.

During the 19th century, a citizenry hesitant to accept things new and different watched comparatively rapid changes transform the postal service into a remarkable public convenience. By the start of the 1800s, the Post Office Department had bought several stagecoaches for transporting both mail and passengers on the nations post roads. Its patronage led to better stagecoach design, insuring improved comfort and safety, and to better roads. Also, a full ten years before waterways became official post roads in 1823, the Post Office had begun using steamboats to transport mail between river-linked towns that shared no common road. By 1831, it had begun sending mail short distances via trainsthe iron horses that many people denounced as demonic devicesand five years later awarded its first mail contract to a rail carrier.

Until replaced by automobiles and trucks at the beginning of the 20th century, horses remained major mail carriers, even over long distances, particularly during the period of westward expansion preceding the establishment of transcontinental telegraph and railway services. With the end of the Mexican War and the California gold rush of 1848, the need for effective communication between Atlantic and Pacific coastal cities quickly intensified. In that same year, the Post Office Department contracted a steamship company to carry mail to California. Ships from New York carried mail to Panama, where it was transported across the isthmus, then by ship again to San Francisco. The service was supposed to take between three and four weeks, a goal seldom realized in practice, and the Post Office sought alternative methods for getting the mail across North America in a more expeditious fashion.

In 1858, an overland service was contracted with a stage line, the Overland Mail Company, operating on a 2,800-mile route between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. Semi-weekly stagecoaches began carrying mail in September of that year. The service was also prone to problems, however, and the advertised delivery time of 24 days in practice often ran into months. A solution was attempted by the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, which, without a contract with the Post Office, in 1860 began operating a mail carrier service between St Joseph, Missouri, and California. It was popularly known as the Pony Express. Changing mounts at established relay stations, riders could cover over a 100 miles per day. In March of 1861, the Pony Express carried President Lincolns inaugural address over the route in under eight days, encouraging the Post Office to put the service under federal contract. It began operations under that arrangement in July 1861, but with the transcontinental telegraph hookup on October 24, 1861, the celebrated service, rendered instantly obsolete, was halted.

Some important procedural and organizational changes also marked the pre-Civil War development of the Post Office. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson invited Postmaster General William T. Barry to sit as a cabinet member, although Jackson had no formal authority for the move. Although Barrys predecessor, John McLean, had in fact begun calling the service the Post Office Department even earlier, it was not until 1872, after the Civil War, that Congress officially recognized it as such. A year after Barry took his cabinet seat under Jackson, the Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations was created as an investigative arm of the Post Office. It was headed by P. S. Loughborough, generally regarded at the first Chief Postal Inspector. Also, by 1840 all railroads in the United States had been designated as postal routes, which quickly expanded rail service, the main means of moving large quantities of mail well into the next century.

Initially, mail was not sent in envelopes. Writers would simply fold their letters and address them, then drop them off at post offices where their correspondents would pick them up. In larger cities, there was a local delivery system that charged an extra fee for carrying mail to homes and businesses. An important innovation was the postage stamp, first issued in 1847 and followed by its mandatory prepayment use in 1855. Prepaid postage helped facilitate a new system of free city delivery, which by 1863 was available in 49 cities.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy created its own Post Office Department, with John H. Reagan serving as Postmaster General. Although Reagan was appointed on March 6, 1861, it was a full two months before the Union Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, stopped the federal mail service to the secessionist states. The war, with Union blockades of Confederate ports and its eventual invasion, seriously impeded postal service in the South. Even at the end of the war, with the restitution of the federal post, mail delivery was irregular. As late as November 1866, less than half of the post offices in the South had been fully restored to service.

After the Civil War, post offices on wheels, or mail cars, came into a rapidly expanding use. They had first appeared during the war, in 1862, but it was not until August 1864 that an official Post Office route was put in operation between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Other routes quickly followed, providing mail sorting and handling services while trains were in transit. At first only letters were handled on the postal cars, but by 1869 all other types except parcels were being processed. The use of post offices on wheels would continue to grow well into the twentieth century. In 1930, when trains were still the most viable means of long-distance hauling, over 10,000 of them were used to carry mail to every city and rural town in the country. They would still be used into the 1970s, after the reorganization of the Post Office Department as the U. S. Postal Service, but very sparingly. The Transportation Act of 1958 had earlier insured their quick decline, so that by 1965 only 190 trains still carried and processed mail. The last to do so, which ran between New York and Washington, made its final run on June 30, 1977.

The invention of the horseless carriage and the airplane had much to do with declining use of mail cars and railroading in general. Both were extremely important in the changing face of the Post Office as it sought to provide service to the most isolated communities. Near the end of the 19th century, it inaugurated a system of rural free delivery (RFD) in a nation still in the process of shifting from an agrarian to an industrial society. Experiments with RFD were begun in West Virginia in 1896, despite vituperative complaints about its exorbitant cost and general impracticality. It was, however, a great boon to farm residents throughout America. It also stimulated the building and improvement of roads and highways, because service was only provided in places that had acceptable roads. So that local residents could qualify for RFD, town and county governments undertook these changes at public cost.

Improved roads were, of course, inevitable, thanks to the automobile. In the same year that it inaugurated RFD, the Post Office began experimenting with the horseless wagon, and in 1901 awarded its first contract for a horseless carrier covering a short route in Buffalo. For the next decade the Post Office contracted such services through private companies, but in 1914, fed up with excessive charges and fraudulent practices, it requested and obtained the authority to establish its own motorized fleet of carriers. Two years before that, the Post Office had won another fight with private companies when it obtained permission to put in place its parcel post service, a move that stimulated the rapid growth of mail-order merchandising.

After World War I, which provided a proving ground for the flying machine, the Post Office undertook a serious expansion into airmail service. As early as 1911 it had experimented with the airplane, sponsoring several flights at fairs and meets in over two dozen states. In 1916, during the war, Congress even authorized a transfer of funds for the purpose, but it was not until 1918 that airmail service was begun in earnest. Using planes and pilots on loan from the Army Signal Corps, the Post Office began the first regular airmail service, between New York and Washington, D.C., on May 15 of that year. The date marked an important moment both in the history of the Post Office and commercial aviation.

The Post Office soon took complete control of the service, using its own planes and pilots, and despite reliance on primitive equipment and a lack of all navigational aids and weather data, compiled a remarkable safety record. The public was at first reluctant to pay the 24 cents charged for airmail letters, but interest picked up by 1920, when, on September 8, the last links were made to connect New York and San Francisco. By 1926, when the Post Office began contracting service with commercial airlines, it had won several awards for its pioneer work in night flying, the development of navigational aids, and the general advance of aviation in the United States. The transfer of equipment and stations to the Department of Commerce and municipalities was completed by 1927, when the Post Office put all airmail service under contract to independent carriers.

The Post Offices methods of sorting and distributing of mail were, unfortunately, considerably less innovative. Despite some earlier experimentation with canceling and sorting machines, the old pigeonhole method of sorting and distributing mail remained in practice until the mid-1950s, when the Post Office began a serious effort to automate mail handling. It started issuing contracts for the development of a number of mechanical devicesfrom letter and parcel sorters to facer-cancelers and address readers.

Leading the way towards automation was a parcel sorting machine first used in Baltimore in 1956, but it was quickly followed by the importation and use of the Transmora, a foreign-manufactured, multi-position letter sorter. This was in turn superseded by an American machine, first tested in 1959, which remained in wide use into the 1970s. Other devices placed in service in the 1960s, when the mechanization program greatly accelerated, included Mark II facer-cancelers and a high-speed optical character reader (OCR) capable of sorting mail by the new ZIP Codes.

The ever increasing volume and change in the principal type of mail had made the changes mandatory. Most mail sent before World War II had been private correspondence, but by 1963, 80 percent had become business mail. The computer, an indispensable business tool, had already begun to play an important part in the rapid growth of business mail, so by the time that the Post Office was reorganized as the U. S. Postal Service in 1971, commercial matter was reaching the flood stage.

In fact, the most important problem faced by the newly created USPS was the upward spiraling volume of mail and the lack of adequate physical resources and equipment for handling it. Between 1970 and 1980, the volume of mail grew from just under 85 billion to 106.3 billion pieces, an increase of almost 20 percent. Alarmingly, it grew to 166.3 billion by 1990, and although the rate of growth abated thereafter, the problem of handling that quantity of mail remained formidable.

To deal with it, the U. S. Postal Service both updated equipment and sought new methods of improving its mail-handling efficiency. In 1978, it developed an expanded ZIP Code, which helped reduced the number of times mail had to be handled. In 1982, to exploit fully the revised ZIP Codes, the Postal Service installed its first computer-operated OCRs and barcode sorters (BCSs), and the next year introduced the ZIP + 4 code to further define address sectors in any geographical area. By 1985, the new equipment and ZIP Code refinements had made it possible for each key postal center to process 24,000 pieces of mail per hour, making it approximately four times as efficient as it had been using older sorting machines. By 1992, the Service also began replacing older facer-cancelers, the Mark II and M-36 models, with a more advanced facer-canceler system (AFCS), which, processing 30,000 pieces of mail per hour, proved twice as fast as the older models. Put in use, too, were multi-line optical character readers (MLOCRs), which, in conjunction with remote bar coding systems (RBCSs), were capable of sorting even hand-addressed envelopes after they have been sprayed with an identifying barcode. These automated mail-handling machines and procedures vastly improved the ability of the Service to handle the growing volume of mail efficiently.

Increased cost was the down side of improved efficiency, however. Between 1975 and 1985, the first-class letter rate rose from ten to 22 cents, and by 1995 it had increased to 32 cents, with proportional increases in other classes and types of mail. The greater expense to customers joined with a general slowdown in the economy quickly led to slower rate of growth in the volume of mail in the early 1990s. In fact, in 1991, it declined for the first time in 15 years.

The drop was also the result of growing competition, made possible, ironically enough, by the computer, the device that had played such an important role in the growth in the mail volume during the 1970s and 1980s. Fax machines, e-mail on the Internet, electronic money transfers, and increasingly competitive telecommunication rates offered viable and often preferred alternatives to the snail mail handled by the Postal Service. Many businesses that traditionally circulated advertisements via third-class mail, unhappy with the increasing rates, sought relief in telemarketing alternatives. Many mail order shippers also turned to Postal Service competitors like the United Parcel Service (UPS), which offered a quicker and more convenient package delivery service.

That competition caused the Service to undertake some restructuring. Of focal concern were customer needs and how these might best be met. In response, the Service instituted Customer Advisory Councils, made up of groups of interested citizens who worked closely with local postal managers to identify public concerns. There were 500 such councils in place by the summer of 1993. The Service also issued contracts with private firms to measure customer satisfaction with the mail service. Efforts to reduce bureaucracy and costs, improve customer relations, and stabilize postal rates followed. A downsizing program reduced the upper echelon personnel by one half, and, without layoffs or furloughs, cut other overhead positions by 30,000 through a policy of early retirements and other incentives. At the same time, it made strides towards it automation goals, which by 1994 were less than half realized. Estimates in that year were that 12,000 automation units would be in place and operating by 1977, a considerable increase over the 4,000 put in place between 1991 and 1994.

Downsizing and restructuring has helped the Postal Service considerably, but in the mid-1990s it still facee recurring problems that related to its massive size. For example, it was straddled with retirement benefit costs that total over ten percent of its sales, one of many reasons why it operated with an annual deficit. However, its size simply reflected the daunting nature of its task. The Postal Service handled 40 percent of the worlds mail, processing about 580 million items per day. To do so, it employed the largest civilian work force in the nation, operated a transportation network using over 200,000 vehicles, and utilized over 250 million square feet of owned or leased office and storage space. If it were a private company, it would be one of the very largest in America, with a budget equal to about one percent of the Gross National Product. Moreover, despite its ungainly size, it remained doggedly efficient in its primary mission: to gets mail where it is supposed to go, and, usually, on time. According to its own 1994 assessment, the Postal Service will continue to fine-tune its size and organizational structure so as to be able to handle anticipated increases in the volume of mail efficiently as well as stabilize its operation. Its principal challenge will be to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology of the information revolution now in progress.

Further Reading

Bruns, James H., Mail on the Move, Polo, 111.: Transportation Trails, 1992.

Cullinan, Gerald, The Office Department, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.

, The United States Postal Service, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1973.

Ferrara, Peter J, ed., Free the Mail: Ending the Postal Monopoly, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1990.

Fleishman, Joel L., ed., The Future of the Postal Service, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1983.

Jackson, Donald Dale, Flying the Mail, Alexandria, Vir.: Time-Life Books, 1982.

Long, Bryant A., and William J. Dennis, Mail by Rail: The Story of the Postal Transportation Service, New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp., 1951.

Scheele, Carl H., A Short History of the Mail Service, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1970.

Sorkin, Alan L., The Economics of the Postal System: Alternatives and Reform, Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980.

Summerfield, Arthur E., U.S. Mail: The Story of the United States Postal Service, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Public Enterprise, Dover, Mass.: Auburn House Publishing Co., 1992.

U. S. Post Office Department, A Brief History of the United States Postal Service, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933.

John W. Fiero

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Postal Service, U.S

POSTAL SERVICE, U.S

POSTAL SERVICE, U.S. In many ways the U.S. Postal Service is the federal government agency most intimately involved on a daily basis with its citizens. It was and is a truly nationalizing service, connecting Americans to one another irrespective of state lines and geographic distance. However, in its earliest years its ineffectuality undermined the new nation's ability to fight the American Revolution and hampered efforts at creating a national polity in the years immediately following independence.

Benjamin Franklin was deputy postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 until 1753, when he was appointed deputy postmaster of the colonies. At the Second Continental Congress, Franklin headed the committee that established an American national postal service and in 1775 became the first postmaster general.

The postal service languished during the Revolution. Afterward, as delegate to the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, Franklin continued to press the weak federal government to pay more attention to developing a postal service worthy of the name. He died in 1790, living just long enough to see his pleas and early efforts attended to by the strong federal government created under the Constitution of 1783. Under President George Washington, a strong Post Office department became a national priority in 1789. In September of that year Samuel Osgood was named postmaster-general; at the time there were fewer than eighty post offices in the United States. The Post Office was initially placed in the department of the Treasury. Under the nationalizing influence of the new Constitution, the number of local post offices with full-time or part-time postmasters increased dramatically. By 1800 there were well over eight hundred post offices in the United States.

As was true of so much of the federal government's operations in the Federalist decade, the Post Office department was quickly politicized, and remained so through the Age of Jackson. The Federalist Party built its organization in the 1790s around federal government employees in the states. The party also introduced politically oriented partisan newspapers everywhere in America, as did the opposition, the Jeffersonian Republicans. But the Federalists were in control, and they conjoined both sources of party support by naming many among its host of new printer-publishers as local postmasters. It was a natural marriage: Postmasters in villages, towns, and cities across America were the earliest recipients of national and international news; they not only were able to use the new postal routes being established to expedite delivery of their own newspapers, they could impede the opposition as well. They were able to frank (send without postal fee) their weekly papers to subscribers in many instances. At the same time it was very much in the political interests of the national government to designate local roads as post roads, thus providing subsidies for the building, extension, or improvement of key routes connecting the nations' states and localities. It was under these conditions that the more-than-eightfold growth in the size of the U.S. postal service took place.

Isaiah Thomas is a prime example of a printer-postmaster. After Benjamin Franklin, he was the most eminent representative of this eighteenth-century type. Appointed postmaster of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1775, Thomas was the publisher and editor of The Massachusetts Spy. The Spy was a staunchly Federalist weekly sheet reaching readers throughout the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. The printer combined his operation with running the local post office, his stationer's shop, and his book publishing business. The Berkshires was an area crucial to the Federalist Party interests, for it was the locale of Shays's Rebellion, an uprising against national economic policies perceived to be unfair to farmers that roiled American society to its core from 1786 through 1787.

As postmaster, Thomas's value to the Federalist Party increased immeasurably. Not only was the printer assured of early receipt of foreign and domestic news via incoming exchanged newspapers, he knew that as postmaster he could frank at least part of the heavy mail generated by his newspaper as well as the paper's delivery through the Berkshires along newly upgraded post roads that he had designated. For Thomas and the Spy it was a marriage of business, politics, and government made in heaven and writ large, a grass roots part of national postal operations that extended through the Age of Jackson and beyond.

The Jeffersonian Republicans who took power in 1801 continued this path of postal politicization; as the nation grew in the early nineteenth century, so did the number of postal routes and postmasters who counted themselves partisan printers of newspapers. Among the earliest postmasters-general were prominent national political figures like Timothy Pickering (served 1791–1795), a Federalist, and Gideon Granger (1801–1814), a Jeffersonian Republican.

In the Age of Jackson (1824–1850), the U.S. population greatly increased along the eastern seaboard with the arrival of vast numbers of immigrants from Europe, and in the West as Americans moved into the Ohio Valley and beyond and into the Southwest as far as Texas. The Post Office kept pace. John McLean served as the postmaster general from 1823 to 1829, and he maintained the department's partisan character even as he effectively presided over its rapid expansion. Beginning in 1829 with William T. Barry, the postmaster-general was added to the president's cabinet, although the Post Office did not become officially established as an executive department until 1872 (it was removed from the cabinet in 1971 and renamed the U.S. Postal Service). By the time Andrew Jackson was elected president (with McLean's support) in 1828, there were more than three thousand post offices across America. McLean was rewarded with an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, a position he held until the Civil War. Jackson's "spoils system" of course included the Post Office department. One of Jackson's closest advisors, Amos Kendall, served as postmaster general from 1835 to 1840. A former newspaper printer and local postmaster, Kendall was not only a member of Jackson's cabinet, he also ranked high among the handful of political advisor's that made up Old Hickory's "kitchen cabinet." The political eminence of the postmaster-general reflected the importance of the U.S. Post Office department to the administration's political operations.

Among other political meddling, Kendall introduced a dangerous precedent when he banned Abolitionist tracts from the mail. It was the first of many instances when the U.S. Post Office involved itself in efforts to draw its own line in the sand between the national interest as the postmaster-general saw it and Constitutional protections of freedom of speech and the press. Other instances followed: supposedly "obscene" literature was banned periodically between 1868 and 1959, subject to postal enforcement. It included material that was generally agreed to be obscenity as well as material that was or came to be acknowledged as significant literature, such as works by Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, and many others. In 1918 the Post Office seized and burned issues of the Little Review containing chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses. During World War I several newspapers and magazines were banned from the mail under the terms of the Espionage Act of 1917. Birth control information also fell victim to Post Office censorship.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the U.S. Post Office had become a great unifier for the nation, maybe its most important in a rapidly expanding and diversifying republic. The mail got through efficiently and cheaply, helped by large infusions of federal money. In an age of slow travel, the Post Office linked most Americans to each other across the spreading population. Technology mingled with age-old means of transportation to get the mail through. By 1845, for example, the newly developed steamship was employed to deliver the mails both along the American coast and on inland rivers that could accommodate deep-draft vessels. In 1845 the Postal Act provided subsidies to American steamship companies that carried the mail to Europe, and lowered postage rates domestically to five cents for distances up to three hundred miles. In a nation rapidly expanding westward, the stimulus to commerce was incalculable, and connections were made possible among increasingly separated families as young sons and daughters and arriving immigrants alike moved west.

When even the new technology would not suffice, the Post Office turned to the saddle horse, the simplest and oldest means of rapid transit. Scheduled overland service was introduced in 1858 to carry the mail west. In April 1860 the Pony Express was introduced as a private enterprise, opening a route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, more than 1900 miles. The trip was made in just over ten days, with horses being changed at 157 stations along the way, every seven to twenty miles, depending on the terrain. One of Buffalo Bill Cody's first jobs was as a Pony Express rider on the Mormon Trail route in the early 1860s. He rode from his native Iowa on a route that ended in Salt Lake City, Utah. In July 1861 the Pony Express was contracted by the Post Office to deliver the mail, but it soon passed into history with the introduction of the transcontinental telegraph in October 1861.

Following the Civil War, the transcontinental railroads did a better, cheaper, and faster job of delivering the mail. Postal cars were a fixture on the cross-country railways from the late nineteenth century on. The service expanded, and the cars came to carry all sorts of insured or bonded valuables as well as stamped mail. Like the Pony Express, the rolling post offices of the railway systems made their way into mainstream American culture, usually as the targets of daring train robbers.

The Post Office adopted the use of stamps in 1847 and made prepayment of mail via stamps mandatory in 1855. Money orders were added as a service in 1864 and free daily urban delivery to the home was introduced at the same time. Rural free delivery was added on an experimental basis in 1896 and became permanent in 1902. Postal savings banks were introduced in 1911. The Post Office played an increasing part in American daily life as the twentieth century opened. Technology made this expansion possible. Railway post offices made the sorting of mail in transit an art form; machines to post mark and cancel stamps were in every post office, no matter how small; and conveyor belts and pneumatic tubes moved the mails in all of the large cities of America by World War I. Registered letters and parcel post deliveries were in place by the same time, no matter how rural the locale.

Another aspect of postal operations had some interesting by-products. A few people became rich off of U.S. Post Office errors. A handful of upside-down airmail stamps of the 1920s became collector's items. Stamp collectors swamped post offices in 1962 to buy the commemorative stamp issued to honor Dag Hammarskjöld, late secretary-general of the United Nations, when it was found to have been printed with its yellow background inverted; however, the postmaster-general ordered a new printing of the stamp with the "error" intentionally repeated, destroying the collector value of the original misprinting. Dozens of other stamp-plating errors, large and small, drew would-be collectors. Tens of thousands of children were encouraged to pore over stamp albums looking for gold.

The introduction of airmail was part of Post Office lore. Even before Charles A. Lindbergh popularized single-engine long-distance travel in 1927, the U.S. Post Office had introduced airmail. As a direct outgrowth of the mystique of the single-engine fighter planes of World War I, the postal service began delivering small amounts of mail by air in 1918. The first airmail service carried letters costing six cents between New York City and Washington, D.C. By 1920, again with New York as the hub, airmail service to San Francisco got underway, almost Pony Express-like in its relay system. Technology played its part, as airplanes improved dramatically and radio guidance beacons aided navigation. Government largesse also had a role, as it had with the post roads, the Pony Express, and railroad subventions. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 introduced government support of private airlines with contracts for carrying the mail and subsidies for building new airports. The Post Office was in the air all over the map before Lindbergh made his landing outside Paris.

James A. Farley, a long-time associate of Franklin Roosevelt, and the chief architect of Roosevelt's victory in the 1932 presidential election, was rewarded with the office of postmaster-general in the New Deal administration. He gave new visibility to the department and renewed its association with American politics, an association that had weakened in the wake of two generations of civil service reform beginning in the late nineteenth century.

Farley's political clout was in evidence in another crucial way. A long-time proponent of putting people back to work in the wake of the Great Depression, as postmaster-general with access to the president he was able to tap into the deep funding available for the Public Works Administration. Under Farley's aegis, hundreds of new post offices were built in villages, towns, and cities across America. Many of these are architectural gems. They grace the town squares of towns and the civic centers of large cities alike. Many are Art Deco in design, others are Greek Revival. Designed by otherwise unemployed architects and built by dedicated craftsmen, stonemasons, masons, and plumbers as well as tens of thousands of unskilled laborers, these buildings stand as prized examples of what public funding can do when both the will and the need are present.

Many of these local post offices were built with disproportionately large rotundas. These were meant to symbolize Post Office service, but they were also backdrops for life-size murals painted by out-of-work artists. Here Farley utilized his authority to tap into the funding of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). Many of the frescoes that were painted in the 1930s and 1940s are now considered significant works of art. Ben Shahn, for example, worked for the WPA from 1933 to 1943. Perhaps his best Post Office mural is the thirteen-panel one in the central post office in the Bronx, New York, depicting urban and rural working class life in America.

By the end of the twentieth century the ritual of the familiar daily mail delivery had deepened America's attachment to its Post Office. It was a daily connection of virtually all Americans to their federal government. Many aspects of American culture symbolized that attachment. In the "Blondie" comic strip, Blondie and Dagwood's postman, usually arriving a couple of times a week followed by a neighborhood dog, was introduced to Chic Young's seven-day-a-week comic strip in 1932. Similarly, Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers featured more than one kindly postman (or a small post office) from the 1930s through the 1950s. A late-eighteenth-century printer's post office and a nineteenth-century country post office in a West Virginia country store were fully restored as part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The rural mail carrier in a red-white-and-blue jeep and the bagtoting urban postal worker both became welcome sights across the American landscape.

High-technology postal sorting systems in cavernous regional postal centers, with the alienating effects of sophisticated equipment and attendant depersonalization, have taken their toll on the mail delivery system. Competing with the homey images from the past are those beginning in the 1980s of mail workers "going postal," a synonym for violence in the workplace. Although challenged by competition from private delivery companies as well as the advent of instant electronic means of communication, the Post Office remains the most ubiquitous of federal agencies in a federal establishment that often seems very distant from the day-to-day concerns of Americans.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Israel, Fred L., ed. U.S. Postal Service. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Marling, Karal Ann. Wall-to-Wall America. A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Prince, Carl E. The Federalists and the Origins of the U.S. Civil Service. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

U.S. Postal Service. History of the United States Postal Service, 1775–1993. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoCourier Services ; Direct Mail ; Pony Express ; Rural Free Delivery .

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The United States Postal Service

The United States Postal Service

Source

Adhesive Stamps and Three-Cent Letters . Mail delivery was not a service taken lightly in the mid nineteenth century. There were few mechanical devices to assist in mail handling, and the postal system was in an early stage of development. Local postmasters did much of the work as they saw fit, including canceling stamps so they could not be reused. Until the early 1850s, this process was done by the postmaster in writing or with a hand stamp he designed himself. A key development in the history of mail delivery was the introduction in 1842 of the adhesive postage stamp and envelopes with printed postage, which allowed people to affix stamps themselves or use postpaid envelopes. When postal workers were freed from some of the fee-collection duties, they could spend more of their time sorting mail for distribution. Even so, until 1855 letters could still be sent with stamps affixed or with postage due on delivery. The Postal Act of 1851 introduced some uniformity into the administration of the U.S. Post Office. It stipulated a uniform postage rate: for letters under one-half ounce going up to three thousand miles, three cents for prepaid postage and five cents for postage due on delivery. For distances over three thousand miles, the rate doubled.

City Service . For people living in cities, correspondence within the city limits was easy to manage. Private carriers competed with the U.S. Postal Service, and rates varied depending on the carrier, distance, and size of the letter or package. To send a letter, a person took it to the post office, and a carrier took the letter to the post office closest to the recipient. There was no guaranteed free delivery of mail in cities until 1863. Before then, recipients paid a premium to a private messenger service for delivery or, more commonly, picked up their mail at their local post office. Sometimes the mail was delivered by the sender to the post office for pickup by the recipient; in

some cases the local postmaster had to advertise in the local newspaper that mail was being held for specified recipients.

Rural Service. Mail service between cities or to rural areas was a more complicated matter because travel was difficult: roads were primitive, and the only motorized transportation was by train or steamship. By 1850 mail was being carried by rail when the routes allowed and by steamboat and stagecoach to places not served by trains. But service was slow and unpredictable, especially in the West; the first intercontinental railroad line was not completed until 1869. Railroad tracks were heavily concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, making delivery in the South and West a difficult chore until the end of the century. Overland postal routes were often served on a biweekly basis at best, and that service was to central distribution centers, where mail was sorted and sent out to local stations. Delivery of a letter from the East to a rural western destination could easily take weeks or even months. In rural areas delivery took longer, especially if the recipient was not near a railroad route, and access to a post office was likely to require a time-consuming journey for people living on farms.

War Mail. The Civil War paralyzed the mail service. Some eighty-five hundred post offices in the South separated themselves from the U.S. Post Office, and on 1 June 1861 the federal government forbade delivery of mail to the South, though by mutual agreement between the federal and confederate governments, prisoners of war were able to send letters, which were gathered, exchanged between the sides, and distributed by the prisoners postal service. The Confederacy established its own postal service and issued its own stamps, but the newly established government had difficulty finding printing plants to print the new issues, and, as the war progressed, inflation caused the postal rates to quadruple from their initial level, which was the same as in the North. Paper shortages added to the problem, as envelopes became scarce. People used any wrapping materials they could find to cover letters, including wallpaper. In most cases, the system simply failed, and people resorted to personal messengersacquaintances traveling toward the destination of the letteror private carriers, such as American Express, to carry their correspondence. By the end of the war more than fifty-five hundred post offices in the South had closed.

The System Flourishes. The Postal Act of 1863 designated classes of mailfirst class for letters; second class for periodical publications; third class for the restand authorized free delivery of mail in the cities. That year New York City and Philadelphia employed about 120 mail carriers each to meet the new delivery obligation, and by 1864 there was free delivery of mail in sixty-six cities, requiring the services of 685 mailmen. Rural free delivery was still thirty-three years off. With free delivery in the cities, the postal system flourished. Attempts were made to improve efficiency of distance mail at the same time. Postal workers were assigned to railroad mail routes to sort mail while it was in transit to speed up distribution. Postal rates dropped to two cents

for a half-ounce letter. By the end of Reconstruction, the postal system handled some three billion pieces of mail annually.

Source

Peter T. Rohrbach and Lowell S. Newman, American Issue: The U.S. Postage Stamp, 18421869 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984).

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U.S. Postal Service

U.S. POSTAL SERVICE

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) processes and delivers mail to individuals and businesses within the United States. The service seeks to improve its performance through the development of efficient mail-handling systems and operates its own planning and engineering programs. The service is also responsible for protecting the mails from loss or theft and apprehending those who violate postal laws.

The postal service was created as an independent establishment of the executive branch by the Postal Reorganization Act (39 U.S.C.A. § 101 et seq.), which was approved August 12, 1970. The U.S. Postal Service began operations on July 1, 1971, replacing the Post Office Department, which after years of financial neglect and fragmented control had proved unable to process the mail efficiently. Despite the availability of new technology, as well as skyrocketing mail volume, the department handled mail the same way it did in the 1870s.

As of 2002 the postal service had approximately 750,000 employees and handled more than 200 billion pieces of mail annually. The chief executive officer of the postal service, the postmaster general, is appointed by the nine governors of the postal service, who are appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for overlapping nine-year terms. The governors and the postmaster general appoint the deputy postmaster general, and these 11 people constitute the board of governors.

In addition to its national headquarters, the postal service has area and district offices, which supervise approximately 38,000 post offices, branches, stations, and community post offices throughout the United States.

In order to expand and improve service to the public, the postal service is engaged in customer cooperation activities, including the development of programs for both the general public and major customers. The consumer advocate, a postal ombudsman, represents the interests of the individual mail customer in matters involving the postal service by bringing complaints and suggestions to the attention of top postal management and solving the problems of individual customers. To provide postal services that are responsive to public needs, the postal service operates its own planning, research, engineering, real estate, and procurement programs, which are specially adapted to postal requirements. The service also maintains close ties with international postal organizations.

The postal service is the only federal agency whose employment policies are governed by collective bargaining. Labor contract negotiations affecting all bargaining unit personnel are conducted by the Labor Relations or Human Resources divisions. These divisions also handle personnel matters involving employees not covered by collective bargaining agreements.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over criminal matters affecting the integrity and security of the mail. It operates as the inspector general for the postal service. Postal inspectors enforce more than 100 federal statutes involving mail fraud, mail bombs, child pornography, illegal drugs, mail theft, and other postal crimes. The inspectors are also responsible for the protection of all postal employees. In addition, inspectors audit postal contracts and financial accounts.

Most postal regulations are contained in postal service manuals covering domestic mail, international mail, postal operations, administrative support, employee and labor relations, financial management, and procurement.

In recent years the U.S. Postal Service has gained national attention on several fronts as it sought to compete with private delivery services such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. In the middle 1990s, the USPS began sponsoring a professional bicycling team that gained worldwide renown when team member Lance Armstrong won the prestigious Tour de France for five consecutive years beginning in 1999. In 2002 the USPS announced a postal rate increase to 37 cents for first-class mail, citing declining revenues and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the fears generated by the mailing of several anthrax-contaminated letters shortly thereafter.

further readings

Cerasale, Jerry. 2003. "Postal Service Reform: Why? And How?" Catalog Age 20 (November 1).

Hudgins, Edward. 2001. Mail at the Millennium: Will the Postal Service Go Private? Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual> (accessed November 10, 2003).

U.S. Postal Service. Available online at <www.usps.com> (accessed August 16, 2003).

cross-references

Collective Bargaining Agreement; Mail Fraud.

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Postal Service (USPS), United States

Postal Service (USPS), United States

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is an independent government agency that collects and disseminates the mail to millions of homes and businesses across the country.

In the early days of America, colonists had to either ferry their own mail or rely on messengers and merchants to carry their letters and packages. The first official postal service emerged in 1639, when Richard Fairbanks' Boston tavern became the repository of all mail sent from abroad. The postal service was initially run by the British, but in 1775, America's Continental Congress voted to establish its own postal system, with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general. By the 1780s, the postal system consisted of seventy-five post offices and about twenty-six post riders. The first postage stamps were introduced in 1847.

Over the next two centuries, the postal service expanded and evolved. Americans' westward expansion gave rise to the Pony Express in the 1860s, a team of horse-riding letter carriers who distributed the mail between Missouri and California. Over the years, letter carriers traded in their horses for faster means of transportation: trains, steamboats, and trucks. With the introduction of the airplane in the early 1900s, the Postal Service could for the first time deliver mail quickly and affordably across the oceans.

The next major overhaul to the postal system occurred on August 12, 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act. The Act replaced the old Post Office Department with the U.S. Postal Service. It was designed to make the service run more like a business and less like a government agency. Today, the USPS is directed by an eleven-member Board of Governors, led by a Postmaster General. Postage rates and service fees are decided upon by an independent Postal Rate Commission.

Every day, the USPS handles more than 680 million pieces of mail. The Postal Service relies on the revenue from these deliveries to survive, because it does not receive funding from taxpayer dollars. To protect its customers from mail theft, mail fraud, and other criminal activities involving the mail, the USPS has its own law enforcement agency, called the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. This agency works closely with federal law enforcement officials to ensure that the mail service is safe.

In October 2001, mail security became a matter of national urgency. Following the discovery of anthraxtainted letters, which ultimately infected twenty-two people and killed five in the northeastern United States, the USPS announced that it was adopting tighter security measures. Many postal facilities were outfitted with state-of-the-art irradiation systems, which sanitize the mail using the same radiation technology that protects the food supply from bacterial contaminants. Also installed were vacuum/filtration cleaning systems to remove hazardous particles from sorting machines.

FURTHER READING:

BOOKS:

Bolick, Nancy O'Keefe. Mail Call!: The History of the U.S. Mail Service. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, Incorporated, 1994.

Kule, Elaine A. The U.S. Mail (Transportation and Communication Series). Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.

ELECTRONIC:

The United States Postal Service. <http://www.usps.com/> (December 20, 2002).

SEE ALSO

Anthrax, Terrorist Use as a Biological Weapon
Mail Sanitization
Nixon Administration (1969█1974), United States National Security Policy
Postal Security

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