A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

From Pharaohs to First Class Post: The Evolution of Mail and the United States Postal Service

by Anne Pyburn Craig   


It’s the age of digital natives, and the US Post Office is busily coming up with ideas that can help direct-mail marketing stay relevant. A new report from the Office of the Inspector General highlights 10 techy tactics, ranging from 3D mailers and scannable QR codes that lead users to websites via mobile devices, to mailers with built in USB drives and functional screens. All these ideas are aimed at enticing mass-mailers to step up their snail mail game. For individuals, they’ve developed an app that lets you buy holiday stamps and schedule package deliveries from your smart phone or tablet.

Meanwhile, when was the last time you wrote a letter? A personally addressed envelope containing handwritten, or even typed, words has an anachronistic, old-world charm about it these days. After all, with email we can all do the kinds of things that the mail-marketers are being sold on—embed photos and videos, or link recipients to more information. But when you really need to move a piece of paper or a physical object from Point A to Point B inexpensively and reliably, who ya gonna call? That’s right.

In an era of pervasive electronic communication and the creeping privatization of everything, the postal service is under intense pressure to keep up. Few people know, however, that this still-vital-when-you-need-it service would be solvent if it were not for a law passed in 2006 that requires the postal service, unlike any other government sector, to pre-fund employee health benefits 75 years into the future at a cost of $5.5 billion a year.

The USPS is the nation’s largest employer after Walmart, meaning it is the largest employer that pays a living wage and benefits that actually make it possible to maintain a home, a car, and a family for some 600,000 people. And when you need what they offer, nothing else comes close. On November 14, postal workers in the mid-Hudson area pulled off a protest-on-wheels action at a dozen local offices, including the Newburgh mail processing plant that is currently on the list for closure—a move that employees contend will eliminate the possibility of next-day service for local mail.

How’d We Get Here?
You’ve probably heard the famous quote that’s inscribed on New York City’s James Farley Post Office. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Most of us grew up thinking of it as the mail carrier’s motto. But did you know that it is actually a quote from the ancient Greek Herodotus? Herodotus was admiring not the Grecian postal system, but the one that existed in Persia in around 500 BCE. Egyptian Pharaohs had the first courier system some 2,000 years before that. It’s always been important for the powers-that-be to be able to move information around.

To that end, a lot of creative means have been employed. Besides couriers on horseback, Persians used carrier pigeons starting in around 1150 BCE, as did the Mongols. Genghis Kahn used carrier pigeons to keep the home folks informed of the progress of his conquest, and the original founder of Reuters, Paul Reuter, used them to get stock prices from one European telegraph outpost to the next in 1860. Pigeons brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo to England.

Pigeons, brilliant as they are, can’t carry much and at best can only take mail back and forth between set points. In areas inhospitable to horses, early mail delivery has been accomplished by camel (Australia) and by reindeer and dogsled (Alaska, as you might expect.) There is a native village deep in the Grand Canyon that still receives mail by mule train.

Mail service to most of the world, however, was accomplished throughout most of history by horses in the service of kings and emperors, or by boat where necessary. From the 15th century through the mid-17th, postal service was strictly for royals and their ilk. Louis XI established a Royal Postal Service for the French crown in 1477; Henry VIII appointed the first British “Master of Posts” in 1516, but it would be over 100 years before it became legal for these services to carry private mail. Competition was also illegal.

The postal system was, like a lot of things, different in North America. Many private individuals had an entire ocean between themselves and their loved ones and business connections. In most colonies, mail began with each household dispatching a member to the harbor when a ship came in, to go on-board and see if there might be a letter. In Boston, one man—Richard Fairbanks—was appointed to receive all mail at his home and get it either aboard ship or to its colonial destination. Fairbanks was paid one cent per letter, and was held personally responsible for any screw-ups.

Aside from Fairbanks and his probably numerous headaches, mail service evolved organically rather than systematically for a century or so. Letters that went unclaimed aboard ship were brought to the designated portside tavern, where individuals would come and scoop up their own letters and those for people in their immediate neighborhoods. To get a letter out into the countryside with any reliability, you had to hire your own horse and rider.

A loose system evolved, under which the Crown appointed part-time postmasters—innkeepers, storekeepers, clergymen. But the Brits and their agents had seen the necessity of connecting major cities. The Albany Post Road, connecting the upstate urban center to New York City, was built on former native trails starting in 1669. Most is now Route 9.

In 1737, Benjamin Franklin began reforming the postal service as postmaster of Philadelphia, becoming postmaster of all British colonies by 1753. Franklin established the Dead Letter Office and arranged for faster ships to bear overseas mail. He was fired by the Crown in 1774 for being one of those damn radical types, and promptly rehired to run the newborn Constitutional Post in 1775.

Steam and internal combustion engines revolutionized the delivery of mail, although there were some complaints. A New York Times story in 1884 describes West Shore rail-based mail service as slow and understaffed, and suggests that the horses and carriages or riders had done a far better job. The physical restrictions of railroad tracks meant only one delivery and one pickup a day.

In the city, congested traffic gave rise to one of the more creative interludes in mail service history. For the first half of the 20th century, mail traveled around Manhattan in a system of pneumatic tubes. At its peak, the pneumatic tubes whooshed through the underground at a speed of 60 miles-per-hour, each shipment carrying 500 letters. The operators of the mechanisms were called “rocketeers.”

Actual rocket mail has also been attempted, but has been a big fat fail, despite a much-heralded 1959 experiment in which “missile mail” was shot from Virginia to Florida from a Navy destroyer, arriving in 22 minutes. The Postmaster General at the time, one Arthur E. Summerfield, proclaimed that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Meanwhile in the Hudson Valley, post office consolidation was already a concern. “Hudson Valley business leaders were displeased today because of the experimental reduction of the postmarks of Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley-On-Hudson. Instead, this mail is being postmarked Yonkers,” reported the New York Times.

The Postal Present
The US Postal Service has long been a study in contrasts. Postal workers became labor heroes when their successful wildcat strike in 1970 resulted in unionization, leading to the aforementioned reasonably good jobs. Simultaneously, the phrase “gone postal” rose into common usage as a euphemism for being driven to the point of violence by one’s maddening workplace. Saturday delivery was threatened in early 2014 and rescued by Congress, but Sunday package delivery—in collaboration with shipping giants like Amazon—has begun this holiday season.

A recent poll showed that of all Federal bureaucracies, the postal service is most loved, with over 70 percent of respondents saying it does a “good or excellent” job, and yet it’s constantly under threat. Besides the Newburgh processing plant, 81 others are on the chopping block. The USPS has recently begun contracting with private companies—most notably Staples—to outsource some “official” counter and retail functions. This means that the work of unionized, sworn professionals is replaced with $9-an-hour counter help, raising some security issues. At Staples, your mail is tossed into unlocked bins and not considered “actual” US mail, with all the regulations and protections that entails, till the Post Office collects it.

If  privatization continues, the mail may soon look very different. And no private company is likely to do endeavor anything similar—even UPS and Fed-Ex rely on the USPS to get packages those crucial last few miles to your doorstep.

Postal workers see a ray of hope in the resignation of Patrick Donahoe, who will be replaced in early 2015 by the nation’s first female Postmaster General, Megan Brennan.

To learn more about postal workers’ concerns, check in with the local at midhudsonarealocal.org.