On February 20, 1792, President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act into law, adding the United States Post Office Department to his cabinet. Under the new Constitution, adopted in 1789, Congress was granted the power to “establish post offices and post roads” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 7). A temporary postal service had been established and continued several times since then, but the Postal Service Act expanded and organized it, marking the beginning of the long and fascinating history of the United States Postal Service (USPS).
The History of Mail Delivery
The roots of the USPS go back to colonial times. Early in America’s history, mail delivery was a hit-or-miss affair. Friends, relatives, traveling merchants, and wandering Indians were the carriers, and if they happened to be going in the right direction, they might take a letter or two with them. In the South, a plantation owner might send a private messenger to deliver the mail.
As the population grew, however, the need for a reliable way to send messages between the colonies grew, as well. Many of the colonies began to set up delivery routes to connect key cities, and by the early 1690s, the British Crown had established a North American postal service, which lasted until the the American Revolution.
Benjamin Franklin: Postmaster General
It was during the time of this colonial postal service that Benjamin Franklin began to experiment with better ways to deliver the mail. In 1753, he was appointed Joint Postmaster General for the colonies. His first act was to thoroughly overhaul the postal service. After personally inspecting many of the post offices in the colonies, Franklin surveyed and marked new, shorter delivery routes. He also standardized postal rates, established a regular delivery schedule, and directed post riders to carry mail at night between such major cities as New York and Philadelphia. In 1760, Franklin had the honor of reporting the first budget surplus in North American postal service history.
Franklin, however, was dismissed from office in 1774 because he was sympathetic with the cause of the colonies in the turmoil leading up to the American Revolution. As the relationship between England and the colonies strained to the breaking point, events occurred and decisions were made with increasing rapidity. Americans eagerly looked to the newspapers for the latest developments, and editors worked day and night to provide their readers with all the facts. Without Franklin’s guidance, the royal postal system moved slowly and unreliably, though, and journalists began to look for a better way to send and receive mail.
On October 5, 1774, newspaper publisher William Goddard submitted a plan for a “Constitutional Post” to the First Continental Congress. The idea was to fund the service with subscriptions from the colonies, all revenues being used for improvements. Congress did not act on the proposal at first, but after the Battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the American Revolution, the colonies could no longer depend on the British Crown for services.
Accordingly, mail delivery was one of the first things the Second Continental Congress discussed when it met in Philadelphia in May 1775. Benjamin Franklin, fittingly enough, was appointed as chairman of a Committee of Investigation considering the question. The result was the organization of the United States Post Office (USPO) on July 26, 1775. Franklin was the first Postmaster General.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act. Effective July 1, 1971, the United States Post Office was no longer be part of the cabinet but an independent establishment of the executive branch called the United States Postal Service (USPS). This new organization was (and still is) run by a board of governors, nine of whom were to be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. These nine governors would choose a postmaster general, who would then help them choose a deputy postmaster general. The primary purpose of the board of governors was to oversee postal rates with assistance of the independent Postal Regulatory Commission.
Currently, the USPS is the third largest civilian employer in the United States, providing work for over 500,000 people. Clerks, processors, carriers, and others help to deliver about 213 billion pieces of mail to 146 million addresses each year. The USPS is not without difficulties, however. The Internet and the recent recession have combined to decrease the volume of mail being sent annually. Email has replaced “snail mail” in many contexts; and even though online shopping has increased the number of packages being shipped throughout the United States, the USPS must compete with FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS) for this business. As a result, the revenues of the USPS have taken a plunge in recent years. Time will tell how these challenges will be met.
Delivering the Mail
One of the recurring themes of the history of mail delivery in the United States is a constant push to seek faster, more reliable ways to send letters and packages from one place to another. As the country grew, the need for better postal service grew with it. The result was a host of innovative and sometimes unusual methods of delivering mail:
- Horses were the earliest delivery vehicles in America. Although sometimes they competed with stagecoaches for contracts, post riders were generally preferred because they were less expensive. Horses and horse-drawn vehicles were typical for mail delivery until the early 1900s. The Havasupai Indian Reservation in Arizona still receives mail by mule train.
- The Pony Express was by far the most famous experiment in mail delivery in the United States. Riders galloped nearly 2,000 miles between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, relaying the mail between the two cities in about 10 days. The experiment was a financial failure and was shut down in 1861 after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line.
- Dogs have frequently assisted with mail delivery. In the 1880s, a dog named Dorsey carried mail unattended back and forth between two California mining towns. More recently, dog sleds were the standard delivery vehicle in Alaska until 1963.
- Pneumatic tubes rapidly transported mail within Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New York City in the late 1800s. This interesting idea inspired Postmaster General Emory Smith to predict that pneumatic tubes would be the standard delivery system nationwide in the upcoming 20th century. Postal inspectors, however, said in 1907, “This is the most expensive method of mail transportation in use at the present time, and the Inspectors very much doubt whether the advantages obtained are commensurate with the heavy expense.” The service was discontinued in all cities in 1953.
- Rockets and missiles have been experimented with at various times. In one unofficial test in 1936, two rockets carried mail between Greenwood Lake, New York, and Hewitt, New Jersey. The rockets crashed on the ice, however, and the Hewitt postmaster had to haul the mail to the post office. In a more formal trial, Navy submarine USS Barbero successfully delivered mail to Mayport, Florida, via guided missile. In a burst of enthusiasm, Postmaster General Arthur A. Summerfield declared, “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles.”
Mailing a Letter
So what happens when you put a letter in your mailbox to be delivered?
- Your mail carrier takes it to the local post office.
- The post office places all of its mail on a truck and sends it to the regional Processing and Distribution Center (P&DC).
- At the P&DC, the mail is placed in hampers, which are emptied into machines for sorting.
- Your letter is grouped with other letters of a similar size and shape by the machines.
- The letters are automatically rotated so that they are right side up and facing the same direction. At this point they also receive postmarks and cancellation lines.
- The letters are sorted into three groups: mail with handwritten addresses, mail with machine-printed addresses, and mail with bar codes already printed, such as business reply mail.
- A machine reads the address on the envelope of your letter and prints a fluorescent bar code on the back that can be used for tracking purposes. If the machine cannot read the address, your letter will probably be delayed because it must be sorted by hand.
- Another machine reads the bar code on your letter and sorts it into the proper bin based on ZIP code.
- If your letter is going to a nearby location, a carrier may take it directly from the P&DC to the proper mailbox. Otherwise it will be trucked to the proper post office or flown to another P&DC in the region of the letter’s destination and be sent to the post office from there.
- Once the letter arrives at the correct post office, a carrier will deliver it.
- Narration: What happens when you place a letter in your mailbox?
- Create your own timeline of the history of the U.S. mail.
- Make a flip book showing the different ways mail has been delivered (the sixth item can be plane, automobile, or pedestrian depending on how your mail is delivered to you).
The United States Postal Service: An American History
88-page download from the USPS that covers not only the history of mail service, but also the various postmasters general, a timeline, and how the system works.
Significant Years in U.S. Postal History
Helpful timeline taken from above.
Lots of numbers!
History of Stamps
The history of stamps.
Elements of a Stamp
Know your stamp!
Want to work for the U.S. Postal Service?
Tour the Postal Museum
Create a Post Office Play Station
Ideas for encouraging play and imagination.
Help Keep the Mail Safe
Sorting mail is a tough job! See how well you do in this interactive from the National Postal Museum.
Decode the Barcode
This interactive from the National Postal Museum shows you how to read the barcode on envelopes.
The Postmaster’s Challenge
A Who Wants to Be a Millionaire type game to test your knowledge. Great for review!
Another great interactive at ReadWriteThink where you create your own letter while learning the parts of a letter.
Learn the parts of a postcard while creating your own. Also at ReadWriteThink.
Little ones can assemble their own mailbox!
Postal Exam Sample Questions
Think you’d like to work at the post office? Test your skills!
Seven Little Postmen by Margaret Wise Brown
An explanation of what happens as a letter with a secret message travels from the little boy who mailed it to his grandmother’s house. A Little Golden Book from a favorite author.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Owney the Dog Curriculum Guide for Teachers
This is an excellent download from the National Postal Museum. The Curriculum Overview is for teachers, the four unit downloads are for students. Additional lessons, worksheets, and other resources are also available. Be sure to download Owney the Railway Dog for background information.
Owney the Dog Activity Guide
With a focus on stamps.
Is There a Letter for Me?
Free unit study that originally appeared in Home School Enrichment Magazine that covers Bible, math, English, art, science, and history while focusing on letters, letter carriers, and mail.
What is a Stamp?
Lesson plan that explores a stamp.
Postal Pack for Elementary Students
28-page activity pack from the National Postal Museum.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Letter Carrier Coloring Page
Cute for notebook.
For more on the first Postmaster General, you may also enjoy: