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The United States Postal Service announced today that it will end Saturday mail delivery. This is in response to a recent dramatic decline in revenues. As a Government Accounting Office report states, mail volume decreased by 36 billion pieces (17%) 2007-2009, with the USPS losing $12 billion over the same period. There is a lively political debate in progress as to the cause of this decline and plans for the future. Leaving aside the political arguments, this article will reflect on the place of the USPS in American history.
Reflecting trends in the demographics, transportation and communications of the country, the USPS has been interwoven with the progress of the country for centuries. Is a public postal service necessary to democracy? What will the future of the post office look like and how will it affect your business and your life?
The Postal Service was born along with the United States. Reliable communications were considered essential to the independence movement. The Second Continental Congress created the office of Postmaster General on July 26, 1775. Benjamin Franklin was appointed to the post. After the birth of the new nation, the U.S. Constitution established the crucial powers of the Congress, including “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.”
The post office has grown along with the country. A USPS chart shows an explosion in the volume of mail from 124 million pieces in 1847, the first year for which statistics exist, to a 2006 peak of 213 billion pieces. Even with the rise of the internet, the 2012 total of 160 billion pieces is approximately that of 1988, more than three times the volume of 1950. While the post office may well be overdue for changes, it is far from obsolete.
Delivery of the mail depended upon, and helped to spur, changes in transportation. As soon as entrepreneurs developed a new way of reaching citizens, the post office would be contracting with them to carry the mail. From post riders on dirt paths to tractor-trailers on interstates, the mail follows the roads. A USPS history even asserts that the awarding of mail contracts to stagecoaches helped to subsidize early public travel. Steamships delivered letters beginning in 1811. Deliveries by railroad began in 1832 and quickly spread west. Free home delivery to city dwellers began in 1863. Rural free delivery was added in 1890. The first airmail flight took place in 1911.
Early postmasters were at the center of their communities. Often, they were local storekeepers who added the post office to their existing business. Several European countries have recently closed post offices and contracted services to local businesses with success, as a 2011 Businessweek article points out. This may be an area in which history can serve as a template for the future.
In the digital age, business and personal lives are predicated on the ability to communicate immediately. For all the romantic associations with handwritten letters, few would argue that a return to the mail as the primary means of communication would be a good thing. Yet, not everyone owns a computer, let alone a smartphone. It is important that as we charge ahead into the bright digital future, we remember the lesson of the USPS: it is to the benefit of the country that all citizens have equal access to communications. While the post office no longer holds the central place that it once did, we still must connect our citizens with their government, their communities and their world. How we will achieve that goal remains to be seen.
For more information on the current political controversy:
USPS press release
House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform
American Postal Workers Union