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revised 11/22/2003

THE HISTORY OF THE POST OFFICE

Biblical Beginnings

The earliest known messenger service in existence was the courier service of ancient times which are mentioned in our Bible. In the Old Testament (Job 9:25)new translation by James Mofatt) Job speaks of the courier, (My days go quicker than a courier...) . It is again mentioned in Jeremiah 51:31, (Couriers meet, messengers meet, running to tell the king of Babylon his city is stormed on every side...) There was often mention of letters that must obviously have been sent through couriers of one type or another. This was the way soldiers kept track of battles and orders as far back as early Roman times.

The Romans were consummate builders and statesmen. They built some of the most famous roads in history, over which ran a courier system unparalleled in its time. One of the most famous of these ancient roads was the royal road of Persia, which stretched from Sousa, near the Persian Gulf to Sardis. These roads belonged exclusively to the government. It was the ability to send and receive messages quickly that helped to hold the government network together.

It was Herodotus who gave us the words now emblazoned on the central post office building in New York City and for which the U.S. Postal service got its motto: (Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.)

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the deterioration of the roads and transport and with the lack of centralized government, postal service declined through the Middle Ages.

The Courier System

A new example of efficiency in a courier system was seen from the 13th century and the early 1700s run by the University of Paris. The University had a messenger service for carrying letters and money to and from all parts of Europe for its students.

During the reign of King Louis XI of France, the first modern messenger service was established (around 1464). They laid out definite routes with relay stations for exchanging horses, not unlike our Pony Express and Wells Fargo setup. Private mail was excepted (at a very high price). The service was later leased out to private individuals, but was abolished during the French Revolution due to wide-spread corruption.

Up until 1636, the English courier system was primarily restricted to governmental mail. The public post was established in 1636 and offered regular routes to all parts of the British Isles. The rates were fixed according to the distance the letter had to travel. In 1680, a London merchant established a private postal service in the city for which he charged a penny a letter. This was taken over by the government in 1700. It was not until 1839 that a uniform letter rate was established for the whole of England. Posting of letters became a widespread custom after that time.

 

Colonial America

The first post office in America was located in Boston in 1639. Richard Fairbanks was given the exclusive right to receive letters to and from overseas by the General Court of Massachusetts. He was allowed to charge a penny for each letter. In 1673, a monthly service was established between Boston and New York City. The road upon which the mails traveled was known as the Boston Post Road. William Penn established Service from Philadelphia to Maryland in 1683.

In 1692, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Neale was granted royal authority to establish a private, exclusive, American postal service. His service extended from New Hampshire to Delaware and later to Virginia. The mails were on a weekly basis. For whatever reason, the British post office refused to renew Neale#s patent in 1707 and took over the service themselves.

From 1737 to 1753, Benjamin Franklin was postmaster of Philadelphia. He was appointed one of two deputy postmasters general for the North American colonies in 1753. He served as such until 1774.

The Second Continental Congress established a new mail system, appointing Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General. His son-in-law, Richard Bache, later succeeded him. The congress designated the official roads as post roads, over which only the government could carry mail. Other services were allowed to carry mail but were required to use another route.  

 

The Federal System

At the first session of the U.S. congress of 1780, Samuel Osgood was appointed Postmaster General and the federal Post Office was established as a temporary agency. The agency was comprised of some 75 post offices, most of which were along the main post road along the Atlantic coast. Service was expanded, as it became possible, and in 1794, the Post Office Department was given permanent status as a branch of the Treasury Department. In 1829, the Postmaster General became a member of the President's cabinet and his department was bifurcated from the Treasury Department to become a department in its own right.

In the earlier days, the postal rates were high because of the small volume sent and the poor transportation available. many of the earlier settlers were illiterate. Cash money was a scarce commodity. From the period of 1811 and 1845, sending a single-sheet letter could cost anywhere from six cents to 25 cents. Letters often took weeks to reach their destination. combine with those situations the fact that people were constantly on the move discovering new territories or chasing after the dream for a better life.

Private letter carrying by steamship captains became a serious competition to the federal service. In 1823, congress declared all navigable waters to be postroads, thus curtailing that form of competition.

In 1838, with the advent of the railroad, the service improved greatly. the railroads became the established method of transporting mail. In 1845, after attacks by many newspapers and members of congress, which declared the Post Office Department to be a monopoly and demanding its disbandment, the Post Office reformed the postal rates and many reforms were established.

 

Pony Express

In 1860, the Pony Express was established through a contract with the postal department. This company was owned by Russell, Majors and Waddell, a freighting firm. It extended from the Midwest to California. the first trip was made in April of 1860 and extended from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, taking a time span of ten days. The horses were changed every 15 miles and riders were changed every 75 miles. After the advent of the telegraph, the firm was driven into bankruptcy. Other express agencies in existence up to World War I were American Express; Wells, Fargo, Adams; Southern, Northern; Great Northern and Western.

In 1918, the federal government took over wartime operation of the railways and the express companies merged in to the American Railway Express company. American Express sold out its shipping interests and branched off into a new direction.

The first airmail flight was made in 1913 from Garden City, Long Island to Minneola, a short hop of six miles. Regular airmail flights began in 1918 between New York City and Washington, D. C.

Transcontinental airmail service began in 1920. Transpacific service began in 1935 and Transatlantic service was introduced in 1939.

Foreign air letter sheets were introduced in 1947 and air parcel post was put into service in 1948. In 1947, the first helicopter service was put into play in Los Angeles, California. the postal service continues to be the primary mail carrier to this date but has active competition by outside courier services It will remain to be seen if privatation of the mail is the wave of the future.

 

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