The U.S. Postal Service has officially been delivering mail throughout the United States and its territories for over 240 years. What started as a means for colonists to send letters back to their families in England has turned into an organization with thousands of employees nationwide. Let’s take a look at how it all began and how it has developed over the years.
The first evidence of mail delivery dates back to the early years of the Thirteen Colonies. With a desire to post correspondence back to their homeland, in 1639 the Massachusetts Bay Colony operated a drop-off and overseas postal service out of a Boston tavern. Local councils then instigated delivery routes between the territories. Governor William Penn created one of the earliest recognized post offices in Pennsylvania in 1683. Toward the end of the century, the British Crown granted the English politician Thomas Neale a 21-year lease for the North American Postal Service. The British parliament purchased this in 1707, but by 1774 colonists had set up their own service as a revolt against British jurisdiction.
With the American Revolutionary War in full swing, between 1774 and 1775 the British-owned postal service was overthrown and the newly-established Continental Congress created the U.S. Postal Service. Congress chose Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, as the inaugural postmaster. Franklin brought previous knowledge of the postal system from his time as a colonial postmaster in 1737. He remained in his new position until late 1776, and succeeded in implementing routes along the Atlantic coast that ran between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain.
The 1800s and 1900s
The 1800s witnessed vast expansion and improvements, including the issuing of the first stamps in 1847. Albeit with long delivery times, mail could now reach young gold rush regions such as California, Louisiana, and Oregon via the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The Pony Express commenced in 1860, with riders covering 1,966 miles on horseback between Sacramento, California, and St. Joseph, Missouri.
Delivery volumes increased further with the introduction of the Rural Free Delivery, which brought mail to families living on isolated homesteads. These same families took advantage of ordering previously unobtainable goods from cities situated miles from their homes. Laundry boxes grew in popularity from 1910 as they allowed students to send home their dirty clothes cheaper than then cost of washing them. Curiously, the mailing of humans was prohibited in 1914 after the parents of May Pierstorff sent her to her grandparents.
In 1914 the National Postal Museum opened in Washington, D.C., and forms part of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Postal Service today
Today the U.S. Postal Service employs around half a million people, manages over 31,000 post offices, and handles 47% of the world’s mail. Over the years its modes of transport have ranged from pony and steamboat to trains, planes, and automobiles. More obscure methods of delivery include a guided missile launched from a naval submarine in 1959. Then postmaster General Arthur A. Summerfield said ‘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’. He didn’t get that right, but the nation’s mail workers continue to bring you your mail rain or shine almost every day of the year.