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Fascinating photos show The U.S. Postal Service in the days of yore

Neil Patrick

The practice of communication by written documents carried by an intermediary from one person or place to another almost certainly dates back nearly to the invention of writing. However, development of formal postal systems occurred much later. The first documented use of an organized courier service for the diffusion of written documents is in Egypt, where Pharaohs used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in the territory of the State (2400 BC). The earliest surviving piece of mail is also Egyptian, dating to 255 BC.

The U.S. Mail traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The Post Office Department was created in 1792 from Franklin’s operation, elevated to a cabinet-level department in 1872, and transformed in 1971 into the U.S. Postal Service as an independent agency under the Postal Reorganization Act.

The Post Office in the 19th century was a major source of federal patronage. Local postmasterships were rewards for local politicians—often the editors of party newspapers. About 3/4 of all federal civilian employees worked for the Post Office. In 1816 it employed 3341 men, and in 1841, 14,290. The volume of mail expanded much faster than the population, as it carried annually 100 letters and 200 newspapers per 1000 white population in 1790, and 2900 letters and 2700 newspapers per thousand in 1840.

 

Employees driving a regulation mail wagon, size 3, on an unidentified San Francisco, California, street. 1895

Employees driving a regulation mail wagon, size 3, on an unidentified San Francisco, California, street. 1895

 

ity Collection Wagon 1890

city Collection Wagon 1890

 

Regulation Wagon 1895

Regulation Wagon 1895

 

This is an image of a city collection mail wagon on an unidentified city street, used to collect mail from sidewalk mailboxes. 1905

This is an image of a city collection mail wagon on an unidentified city street, used to collect mail from sidewalk mailboxes. 1905

 

Two Columbia Mark mail trucks face in opposite directions.

Two Columbia Mark mail trucks face in opposite directions.

 

A letter carrier standing in front of a mailbox at Mott Street above Park Row, 1903

A letter carrier standing in front of a mailbox at Mott Street above Park Row, 1903

 

Letter Carrier Delivering Mail by Bicycle 1890

Letter Carrier Delivering Mail by Bicycle 1890

 

. In an unidentified city, postal officials pose with letter carriers and row of one-man collection mail wagons 1905

. In an unidentified city, postal officials pose with letter carriers and row of one-man collection mail wagons 1905

 

San Francisco Postal Workers 1890

San Francisco Postal Workers 1890

 

 

 

An unidentified Rural Free Delivery carrier posed in his two-wheeled mail cart with patrons from along his new mail route. Location is not identified in the image. 1905

An unidentified Rural Free Delivery carrier posed in his two-wheeled mail cart with patrons from along his new mail route. Location is not identified in the image. 1905

 

The postal system played a crucial role in national expansion. It facilitated expansion into the West by creating an inexpensive, fast, convenient communication system. Letters from early settlers provided information and boosterism to encourage increased migration to the West, helped scattered families stay in touch and provide assistance, assisted entrepreneurs in finding business opportunities, and made possible regular commercial relationships between merchants in the west and wholesalers and factories back east. The postal service likewise assisted the Army in expanding control over the vast western territories. The widespread circulation of important newspapers by mail, such as the New York Weekly Tribune, facilitated coordination among politicians in different states. The postal service helped integrate established areas with the frontier, creating a spirit of nationalism and providing a necessary infrastructure.

A mail carrier stands with his Wagner 4-11 motorcycle next to a postal box along his route near Newell, South Dakota, 1915

A mail carrier stands with his Wagner 4-11 motorcycle next to a postal box along his route near Newell, South Dakota, 1915

 

Letter Carrier Delivering Mail.1908

Letter Carrier Delivering Mail.1908

 

Letter carrier removes mail from a sidewalk collection box. 1906

Letter carrier removes mail from a sidewalk collection box. 1906

 

Mailing Letters

Mailing Letters

 

President Wilson at First Regularly Scheduled Airmail Service Ceremony 1918

President Wilson at First Regularly Scheduled Airmail Service Ceremony 1918

 

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail 1923

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail 1923

 

 

Photograph of mail van in the snow 1953

Photograph of mail van in the snow 1953

.Interior of a Trans World Airline (TWA) Skymaster 1946

.Interior of a Trans World Airline (TWA) Skymaster 1946

.Rural Carrier Greeted by Children 1935

.Rural Carrier Greeted by Children 1935

 

Loading Mail onto Railway Post Office Car 1925

Loading Mail onto Railway Post Office Car 1925

 

Railway Post Office Clerks at Work 1930Railway Post Office Clerks at Work 1930

 

A woman and man pose at the window of a small, fourth-class post office in an unidentified rural town. 1938

A woman and man pose at the window of a small, fourth-class post office in an unidentified rural town. 1938

 

This is an image of a postal employee working at a mechanized machine that sorts envelopes based on ZIP code. 1960This is an image of a postal employee working at a mechanized machine that sorts envelopes based on ZIP code. 1960