Shipping Resources: History of the US Postal Service

Between the start of the Revolutionary period and World War 1, US postal officials committed themselves to improving the transportation of mail. From early days up to the present time, the Postal Service has helped in developing and subsidizing each new mode of transportation in the United States. Apart from the postal employees themselves, transportation was the most important development in mail delivery. Even when members of the general public were fearful or somewhat skeptical of the new types of transportation, postal officials still managed to experiment with different inventions that offered the potential for moving the mail faster.

As the delivery of mail evolved from foot to horseback, stagecoach, steamboat, railroad, vehicle, and airplane, mail contracts ensured the necessary income to build highways, rail lines, and airways that would eventually span the continent. By the turn of the 19th century, the Post Office department purchased some stagecoaches for operation on the nation’s roads where mail needed to travel. This encouraged the department to continue with new designs and to improve passenger comfort and safety while carrying mail. The Post Office also used steamboats to carry mail between towns where no roads existed.

In 1831, steam-driven engines were denounced so railroads began to carry mail short distances. By 1836, the Postal Service had its first mail contract with the Railroads. As early as 1896, before most people in the United States were aware of the automobile, the Postal Service was experimenting with the automobile as a faster and cheaper carrier of mail. In 1899, in it’s annual report, the department announced that it had tested the practicality of using the automobile to collect mail in Buffalo, NY. In 1902, the Post Office developed its first contract to carry mail by automobile in Buffalo, NY with plans to expand to other areas. From 1901 to 1914, the post office performed all of it’s vehicle service under contracts. In1914, unhappy with the high rates and frauds uncovered in these contracts, the postal department asked for and received the approval from Congress to establish the first government owned vehicle service in Washington, D.C.

The Pony Express

In the first oart of the 19th century, the United States population started to move into the newly acquired territories including California, Oregon, and Louisiana. Wagon trains were used to inch along the Santa Fe, Mormon, and Oregon Trails, where many passengers were ravaged by ambushes, disease, hunger, and pestilence. In 1848, when gold was first discovered in California, the pioneer movement quickened and that year the post office was awarded the first contract to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in order to carry mail to California. Mail traveled bon a ship from New York, then to Panama, where it was moved by train to San Francisco to be shipped. Originally it was supposed to take three weeks to a month to receive a letter from the east although this rarely happened and it took much longer.

In March of 1960, a man named William H. Russell, an American transportation pioneer, developed an express mail route to get the people of California their mail quicker. Russell’s first step with his two partners was to form the Central Overland California Pike’s Peak Express Company. Russell and his partners built relay stations and found horses that could ride in all weather conditions. On November 3, 1860, the first Pony Express ran west. On an average day, a rider would cover 75 to 100 miles, and would change horses at relay stations. The first mail delivered by the Pony Express via the central route took 10 ½ days. The fastest delivery was in March of 1861 when then President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address was delivered in 7 days and 17 hours. From April 1860 until June 1861, the Pony Express was a private enterprise. From July 1861 it was operated under contract as a mail route until October 1861 when the transcontinental telegraph line was completed. The Pony Express and its inventor became a legend.

Confederate Postal Service

The post office department of the Confederate States was established by an Act of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States on February 26, 1861. At the time, John H. Reagan was the Postmaster General of the Confederate States of America. Reagan issued a proclamation, in May 1861, which stated that he would officially resume control of the postal service of the Confederate States on June 1, 1861. Postmaster General Blair then responded by ordering the cessation of US mail service throughout the South on May 31, 1861.

As the war came to an end the resumption of federal mail service gradually took place. By November, 1865, more than 240 mail routes had been restored in the southern states. Postmaster General John H. Reagan was arrested at the end of the war but was later pardoned and eventually made it into Congress. There, Reagan became the chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.

Railway Mail Service

A few decades before the Pony Express was developed, locomotives were used. In August 1829, the Stourbridge Lion completed the first locomotive run in the US on the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company Road. Steam locomotives were then developed and were able to reach 30 miles per hour. The post office department recognized this an important mode of transportation in 1832. When railway mail service began, mail was sorted on the cars and by 1869 other types of mail were sorted on cars as well. In 1930, more than 10,00 trains were being used to deliver mail all over the United States. Following the passage of the Transportation Act of 1958, mail carrying passenger trains rapidly started to decline.

Free City Delivery

In the earlier part of the 19th century, there were no such things as envelopes used for mail, instead, the letter was folded and the address was placed on the outside of the paper. Customers had to take the letter to the post office to mail it and the recipient had to pick up the letter at the post office unless he or she lived in one of approximately 40 big cities where carriers would deliver mail to your home for an extra tip. Postage stamps became available in 1847 but mailers had the option to send their letters and have the people receiving them pay the postage, this lasted until 1855 when prepayment became the only available option. Street boxes for mail began appearing in large cities in 1858. By 1890, hundreds of post offices were delivering mail to city residents but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that free mail delivery came to rural residents.

The US postal service has been around for hundreds of years, in which time they have greatly improved the ways that mail is transported. From horse and buggy to now airplanes and automobiles, the delivery of mail is constantly being improved with new technologies that arise every day.