Even if the United States Postal Annual is disturbing in the age of email and Online Bill Pay, it’s still such a taken-for-granted accoutrement in our lives that it’s adamantine to bethink it had to activate somewhere.
One accessible starting point is 1792, back Congress clearly accustomed it. Another, if you appetite to trace it to its ancient antecedents, is 1900 BC or about back Assyrian merchants beatific anniversary added belletrist inscribed on cuneiform tablets captivated in adobe envelopes. They sometimes alike amid bill with these beefy “letters.”
Daniella Zalcman photo
Devin Leonard, columnist of “Neither Snow nor Rain.”
Devin Leonard, columnist of “Neither Snow nor Rain.”
Devin Leonard, in his delectably clear book, “Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service,” answers every catechism you can anticipate of — and absolutely a few that never occurred to you — in his ysis of how the USPS came into being. He has a fiery book style, a abundant faculty of humor, a accomplished eye for the cogent nut and a apprehensible way of unraveling some of the controversies and challenges our postal annual has faced in its 224 years of existence.
Leonard’s annual offers surprises on about every added page, starting with the actuality that no one acclimated stamps during the aboriginal 60 years of its existence. (Mail recipients paid the postage due aloft cancellation of their mail.) Some parents beatific their accouchement through the mail back bindle column was launched in 1913 because it was cheaper than a alternation ticket, and politicians abused their chargeless commitment privileges by sending bedraggled laundry home to be washed.
When Congress gave the ambitious to creating a centralized federal column office, it had to affected ample resistance. In the aboriginal appellation of his presidency, George Washington envisaged a postal annual that would advance broad-mindedness by “circulating newspapers and political abstracts that would bouncer the accessible from tyrants and demagogues overextension misinformation.”
Thomas Jefferson and some associates of Congress had austere misgivings about this. They feared the column appointment ability become “a alarming force, spying on the accessible … and meddling in politics.” That anguish makes added faculty back you apprentice that belletrist were rarely amid in envelopes because the amount was prohibitive.
A single-sheet letter activity 30 afar or beneath amount 6 cents to send. One activity 450 afar or added amount 25 cents. An envelope, which counted as a additional sheet, angled those ante — this, at a time back the boilerplate circadian allowance in the U.S. was 50 cents. Moreover, postmasters were all political appointees and usually ran their column offices out of their own homes. There was annihilation to stop them account your mail and advertisement its capacity to anyone they pleased.
There were additionally base arguments over who would get to assignment for the postal service. Gideon Granger, postmaster accepted from 1801 to 1814, believed African-Americans should be banned from accustomed the mail: “By travelling from day to day, and alternate bond with bodies they must, they will access information. They will apprentice that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. They will, in time, become agents to their brethren.”
This, he believed, could alone advance to ancestral insurrection. Congress, acknowledgment his warning, banned blacks from accustomed the mail — a aphorism that stood in abode until afterwards the Civil War.
In these and added matters, the USPS has been acutely circuitous in the best airy issues affecting our country, including censorship battles and advancing debates over the angary of government monopolies. (Rival letter carriers were accountable to arrest in the 1840s, and it’s still actionable for anyone but a postal artisan to abode a letter or amalgamation in a mail box.)
Leonard additionally vividly advance the alteration logistical challenges of mail delivery. The addition in 1864 of mail-sorting cars on trains abundantly bigger efficiency. The advance for air-mail service, starting in 1918, was chancy abundant to acquire the pilots complex the appellation of the “Suicide Club.”
The battles amid the USPS and its battling commitment casework accomplish for awful absorbing reading. The Pony Express, which lasted aloof 18 months, was, in Leonard’s words, “more of a publicity achievement than a business.” But Wells Fargo, as any fan of the Broadway agreeable “The Music Man” knows, became an American icon. Its co-founder Henry Wells is aloof one of abounding angry personalities brought to activity in Leonard’s pages. The postmaster accepted position, over the years, has gone to abstracts as assorted as a administration abundance owner, a above administrator of the Tennessee Valley Authority and a lifetime postal artisan who rose through the ranks. All had their own quirks and temperaments.
By the 1960s, the USPS’s better botheration was arresting with the arduous aggregate of mail. Some attempted fixes, such as the addition of ZIP codes in 1963, worked. Others, including the conception of automatic bulk-mail centers, initially misfired by mangling bags of packages.
Volume ailing at 213 billion pieces of mail delivered in 2006. Since again the abatement in capital mail has been precipitous, while clutter mail — far beneath bread-and-er — now dominates. The acceleration of Amazon with all its mail orders brought some abatement — but as Amazon develops its own agency of delivery, the USPS can’t calculation on approaching acquirement from the online retail giant.
The USPS advancing the appropriate the Internet age would accomplish on its business decades afore it absolutely happened, Leonard reveals, but its attempts to go agenda were met with “howls from the clandestine sector” and attrition from Congress (“The U.S. Postal Annual won’t become the U.S. Portal Service”). Added countries’ postal casework accept entered the agenda era in a big way: “Swiss Column lets barter accept if they appetite their mail delivered at home in adamantine archetype or scanned and beatific to their adopted Internet-connected device.”
Ploys for breeding assets — affairs commodity in column offices, arising commemorative stamps — accept formed to an extent, but as of mid-2015 the alignment was $71 billion in the red.
Leonard delivers both the triumphs and travails with clarity, wit and heart.
Michael Upchurch is the above Seattle Times book yzer and columnist of “Passive Intruder.”
“Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service”
By Devin Leonard, Grove Press, 316 pages, $26
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