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If you didn’t already hear, Saturday was Thank A Mailman Day. While we missed the holiday itself, the fact is that mail carriers rarely get the respect and appreciation they deserve, which is why we’ve decided to go ahead and “deliver” you these fascinating facts about the USPS with the hope that you’ll find time in the upcoming week to say “thank you” to your mail carrier.
America got its first postal service in 1692 when King William gave Thomas Neale the power to erect “offices for the receiving and dispatching letters and pacquets,” essentially making him the US’s first Postmaster General.
The post office is so well-established in the states that the Constitution specifically grants congress the right “to establish post offices and post roads. In fact, Benjamin Franklin helped create the United States Post Office and served as the first Postmaster General.
After 1792 and up until the post office was divided from the government in 1971, the Postmaster General was a position on the Presidential cabinet and the person in the role served as the last person in the presidential line of succession –meaning that if the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the President pro tempore of the Senate, the Attorney General and every other cabinet member died in some sort of freakish accident, the leader of the post office would suddenly be in charge of the nation. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m certainly glad it never came to that.
The first adhesive stamps were issued in 1842 and postage rates became standardized in 1845. Congress officially authorized postage stamps in 1847 and the first two general issue stamps featured Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. The two men were the only images seen on stamps until 1856, when a Thomas Jefferson stamp was issued. Throughout this time, other payment methods were still accepted but in 1856, postage stamps became mandatory for mail sent through the Post Office.
When the mail system was first organized, mail was delivered to local Post Offices and then recipients had to come out to pick up their own mail. Things started to change in 1863 when “city delivery” services began for urban areas with enough customers to make the option economical. This decision played a big role in city planning as it required streets to be named, houses to be numbered and sidewalks and lighting to be provided. As time progressed, more and more neighborhoods were offered the service.
In 1873, the Post Office became one of the first national government organizations instructed to regulate obscene materials. That’s because the Comstock laws made it illegal to send any obscene or indecent material through the post office. Interestingly, under the law, anything that promoted abortion, contraception or alcohol consumption was also illegal to send through the mail.
By 1891, city delivery had become so popular that the Post Office began experimenting with Rural Free Delivery. At the same time, they started increasing the number of deliveries made to large metropolitan areas. In fact, businesses in Brooklyn would often receive up to seven visits from the mail carrier per day. These multiple daily visits began to stop in the forties, but they continued in some areas, like New York City, all the way up until 1990.
The organization started urging residents to get mail boxes to help speed up the carrier’s day and by the 1920’s, this became a requirement for anyone getting mail.
Image Via tncountryfan [Flickr]
It’s been big news lately that the USPS has been discussing cutting Saturday services, but as it turns out, mail used to be delivered seven days a week all the way up until 1912. In fact, the reason Sunday service was cut was because people started visiting the post office so frequently on Sundays that religious leaders appealed to the government to close the offices on church days. The Sunday rule isn’t completely standard either. In some areas, where the largest religion in the area goes to church on Saturday, such as those with large Seventh-day Adventist populations like Loma Linda, CA, the post office is closed on Saturday instead.
Becoming (Mostly) Independent
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In 1970, Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act, which eliminated the Postmaster General as a cabinet position and separated it from the government, creating the United States Postal Service. Because the president still appoints the Postmaster General, the USPS is legally an “independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.” Because this makes it a quasi-governmental agency, it has sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers and the power to negotiate postal treaties with other nations. It also remains the only agency that can deliver first-class and third-class mail. Yes, the USPS has a legal monopoly over your ability to send mail.
Of course, other courier services exist, including bike messengers, UPS and FedEx, but they are limited to a very specific set of rules. For one, only USPS employees can legally put anything into a P.O. Box or a mail box. Couriers must drop your item onto the doorstep or hand it to someone directly. For another, it is illegal to use these services if the mail is not “extremely urgent” or if the courier cost is not at least six times what it costs to mail the item with first-class postage via USPS. You can also have one of your own employees deliver mail directly to the recipient.
If you’re wondering if these rules are actually enforced, I assure you, they are. While it’s not very common for them to raid a company, it has happened here and there. The most notable example occurred when inspectors raided Equifax’s corporate headquarters to evaluate if the company was really only sending “extremely urgent” pieces of mail through FedEx. When it was determined the letters were not urgent, the company ended up being given a $30,000 fine.
Proponents of the legal monopoly argue that without this rule, the USPS couldn’t afford to offer universal mail services to everyone in the country for the same rate. While other carriers can voluntarily provide universal mail services and rates, only the USPS is legally required to do so. Opponents argue that competition drives down rates and that if the market was open, all mail rates would drop. Additionally, they argue that the government could auction off the right to serve the public, including universal service restrictions and award the contract to the service that offered the best price. For now though, the decision to allow the monopoly has been given to congress and they have deferred to the USPS to make up their own rules about competition. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t given other companies much leeway.
By The Numbers
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These days, the USPS is the 2nd largest civilian employer in the US, behind only WalMart, but these numbers have been dropping steadily since their peak employment numbers in 1999. Back then, the company hired almost 800,000 employees and nowadays, they are down to about 550,000.
They also are the operator of the largest vehicle fleet in the U.S. Many of these vehicles are unique in that they have the driver’s seat on the right-hand side and do not have license plates. If you’ve ever wondered why the post office is always raising the price of stamps, consider this –for every penny increase in the average price of gas, the USPS must spend an extra $8 million per year to keep its fleet running. Given that the average price of gas rose about $.38 in 2011, that means the USPS will have to spend about $304 million more on gas this year over last.
Interestingly, while the USPS has the largest vehicle fleet in the world, they do not operate any of their own planes and instead contract with a variety of companies including UPS, FedEx, American Airlines, United Airlines and more. They also contract with Amtrak to offer train delivery on a few routes.
Since the internet has become more wide spread, fewer and fewer items have been making their way through the mail. In fact, first class mail services peaked in 1999 and have been dropping ever since. As a result, the company has been consistently working to increase productivity and reduce costs. Hence the reason for many location closures, staff layoffs and increased automation throughout all stages of the mail process. Even so, in the last few years, the company lost almost $12 billion last year and $8.5 billion the year before.
A Few Famous Postal Workers
If someone asked you to name a few famous people that have worked for the Post Office, most of you would have a hard time. That being said, the list is surprisingly long. Here are a few notable names along with their position in the company and the location where they worked:
- Charles Bukowski, Clerk, Los Angeles, CA
- Bing Crosby, Clerk, Spokane, WA
- Walt Disney, Substitute carrier, Chicago, IL
- William Faulkner, Postmaster, University, MS
- Conrad Hilton, Postmaster, San Antonio, NM
- Rock Hudson, Letter carrier, Winnetka, IL
- Abraham Lincoln, Postmaster, New Salem, IL
- William McKinley, Assistant postmaster, Poland, OH
- Bill Nye, Postmaster, Laramie, WY
- Harry S. Truman, Postmaster, Grandview, MO
For a bit more interesting information on the USPS, don’t miss this interesting article on what happens to your mail when they can’t read your handwriting. Now that you know more about the history of mail delivery, don’t forget to find your mail carrier and let them know that even though you missed Thank Your Mail Man Day, you still care.
Sources: Wikipedia, Mental Floss, USPS