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A Short History of Home Mail Delivery

• February 06, 2013 • 6:54 PM

Most forms of Saturday mail delivery will end in August, the U.S. Postal Service announced this morning. The money-saving move will only be staved off if Congress intervenes, and despite frequent suggestions from Postal Service brass dating back to 1976, legislators have been loath to cut Saturday delivery in the past. This time is different, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe explained to reporters, because in all the parade of budget circus tricks emanating from the Capitol Hill menagerie, the usual rider (a fixture since 1984) mandating Saturday delivery is missing. By moving first, the USPS is telling Congress to put up or shut up on the issue.

Money and mail have always been in uneasy cahoots.

There’s been government-run or officially sanctioned postal service in North America since at least 1692, when Britain’s monarchy specifically appointed a proto-postmaster, Thomas Neale, to set up a system in the colonies. A system of posting letters was in place by the next year, serving the Atlantic seaboard from New Hampshire to Virginia, and it was doing well enough that in 1707 the British government, smelling profits to be made, took proprietorship of the system. One of the first things the breakaway colonies did in 1775 – even before such tiddles as, say, approving a Declaration of Independence –was to recognize their own competing postal system with Benjamin Franklin at its head.

And when the fledgling United States adopted the Constitution in 1783, the document called for Congress “to establish post offices and post roads” but was silent on any other services. In practice, the post offices of these days did not generally deliver mail to households or businesses directly, but only from post office to post office.

A 1796 report to the House gives some flavor of what a dog’s breakfast this system could be:

“All the papers and packages delivered to distant customers and to be left at different offices and places, are put loose into the portmanteau with others, for subscribers less distant, and as often as the mail is opened the newspapers are thrown together out of the portmanteau in order to find the individual paper and package to be left at such office or place. At such times there is good reason to suppose papers and small packages are taken away by persons present at the opening of the portmanteau, to whom they are not directed, but without the knowledge or privity of the postmasters or carriers of the mail.”

Mail carriers could always drop off a piece or two at localities “by the way” along their routes. In some cities you could either pay an extra two cents for personal delivery (which was pretty much how mail carriers made a living) or have a private outfit bring mail to you. Both the Pony Express and Wells Fargo served as private mail carriers; it’s worth noting the Pony Express was never expected to make money.

Not until the Civil War did home delivery enter into the equation. The story goes that a Cleveland, Ohio postal employee by the name of Joseph William Briggs was so torn up by seeing women lined up in the cold to see if a letter had arrived from a son or husband at the front lines that he started delivering mail to homes — at no extra cost. Whether that’s the actual genesis in the U.S. or not, by 1863 Congress approved free home delivery – which included a knock at the door and carrier-to-recipient delivery — in cities where the local revenue for mail would support the additional cost of salaried mail carriers.

Within a year, 65 cities had home delivery. According to the USPS:

Postmasters, groups of citizens, or city authorities could petition the Post Office Department for free delivery service if their city met population or postal revenue requirements. The city had to provide sidewalks and crosswalks, ensure that streets were named and lit, and assign numbers to houses.

And for years, a city had to have a population of 10,000 or $10,000 in gross postal receipts before it could officially qualify for home delivery.

Deliveries were made Monday through Saturday, and usually multiple times a day – in 1905 Baltimore or Philadelphia, for example, a carrier could visit as often as seven times a day. If that sounds expensive, it was, and starting in 1923 many local postmasters winnowed local deliveries to one a day, although that cost-saving move wasn’t universal until 1950.

But as the postman picketh up, he also delivereth. In 1896 the Post Office experimented with rural mail delivery, and by 1902 daily delivery was instituted across the nation (although some really remote places, like at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, only get mail three times a week) and some locales, like the beach burg of Summerland just south of Pacific Standard’s Santa Barbara, California HQ, requires mail pickup at the local post office.

Rural delivery was a hit – most of the articles about today’s announcement cite the impact on rural communities – but it came at a price. As the Smithsonian’s Daniel Gifford pointed out last year, by 1909 the Post Office was deeply in the red:

From the very beginning in 1909 when the $17 million shortfall was announced, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock kept the blame on two specific causes: “Recent investigations have shown that the two great sources of loss to the postal revenues are second-class mail matter and rural delivery. The loss on second-class mail matter has been increasing for many years until it now amounts to more than $64,000,000. The loss from rural delivery, a service begun hardly a dozen years ago, and of unprecedented growth, reaches nearly $28,000,000.”Critics on both sides quickly began sparring over the question of second-class mail and America’s prodigious consumption of magazines and periodicals, but few demonstrated an inclination to attack the Rural Free Delivery.

In a case of deux ex machina unlikely to be repeated, Gifford demonstrates that an unprecedented craze for souvenir post cards – especially from rural outposts – gave the system breathing room to get its fiscal house in order and turn deficits into surpluses.

But post-card saviors are few and far between, and ever since, the Post Office has been slimming down its delivery options while it fights off deficits through innovation and automation alongside the steady ratcheting up of postage. In 1923, for example, the same year that once-a-day city delivery reared its head, new homes were required to have a box or slot for the carrier to slip mail into; no more knocking and waiting to hand deliver the post.

While an unfunded pension liability is a big reason for the USPS’ current distress, the post office could just as easily added “deficits” to the “rain, sleet, and snow” that it routinely overcomes. Between 1861 and 1940, for example, the Post Office was in the black only eight times; the last time it wasn’t in the red was the 2006 fiscal year, and it cites public polls and its own research showing most Americans would prefer to kill Saturday delivery if it saved both money and the post office.

Even if Saturday delivery does end, the world itself won’t. Other industrial counties have already axed Saturday delivery – Australia and Canada, for example, are two geographically large and yet urban-centric nations that only deliver on weekdays (Canada does increase to six days during certain preset mail-heavy periods).

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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