The Postal Service as a Catalyst of Unification
in Victorian America: 1863-1910

Old Albany Post Office

Old Albany Post Office

Created by Anthony Hopper

Soldiers Guarding Train (iss. 1898)

Troops Guarding Train stamp (iss. 1898[1m])

"One Nation Under God:"

1863: A Pivotal Year


It is usually difficult to decide when one historical period begins and another ends, as there a rarely any clear demarcation points. Therefore, the historian's choice of a starting date for this or that era is to some extent arbitrary, and it is no different in this case. Nevertheless, I feel that 1863 is a good place with which to begin to talk about the modern Post Office. In that year, Congress authorized city free delivery of mail, which would have a profound effect on the population of the United States. This action was followed up by two more important events in 1864--the creation of Postal money orders (which I will not discuss in this web essay but is nonetheless important) and establishment of the first railroad post offices [2m].


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The Mail Must Get Through: Creating a Nationwide Infrastructure


During the Victorian period, the Postal Service played a key role in helping to transform the United States from a collection of local communities to a true nation state. The agency was only able to perform significant cultural work because it found ways to efficiently deliver vast amounts of correspondence to millions of patrons who were scattered over an enormous landmass. The Post Office’s success was the result of its willingness to expand its infrastructure and hire the employees necessary to meet the needs of its customers, which were made up of private citizens and businesses. As important, the Postal Department took advantage of new methods of transportation that were coming of age in postbellum America.

Rural Free Deliveryman--
  Click here to see larger version of this image.

Rural free deliveryman

Victorian era mailman--
  Click here to see larger version of this image.

Mailcarrier (1895)

After the Civil War, the Postal Service expanded quickly. As a measure ofof this rapid growth, the number of post offices grew from around 28,500 in 1860 to over 62,000 in 1890 [3m]. The government agency had employed only 27,000 people in 1828, but that figure had jumped to more than 150,000 only sixty years later [4m]. By 1900, the nation's mail system included an area that stretched from the east coast of the United States to Hawaii [5m]. By increasing the number of its post offices and workers, the Postal Department could meet its goals of providing quality service to all Americans. Its establishment of city free delivery in 1863 (picture on right [6m]) and rural free delivery (RFD) in 1893 (picture on left [7m]) furthered these aims (for more information on these two topics, see the Building Communities through Routinization and Standardization section of this website).

In addition to expanding its service, the Post Office took steps to ensure speedier and more efficient delivery of the mail. One way it accomplished this feat was to take advantage of the surge in railroad development which occurred in postbellum America. The Postal Service had used steamships since the early 1800s to help it move correspondence from one American locality to another [For more information on the Post Office's use of steamships, see section entitled,The Early Years (1775-1862)]. However, steamships had an obvious drawback in that they could only travel through sections of the country with navigable rivers. Another one of their limitations was their lack of speed, the fastest steamboats traveled at around fifteen to twenty miles an hour [8m]. On the other hand, trains averaged between 30 or 40 miles an hour and tracks could be built over most terrains [9m].

Trains meeting steamboats at a coastal port

Coastal Port linking railway and steamboat lines

The Postal Service first began contracting with railroads to carry mail in the 1830s. It cost the agency more to use this service, but it greatly increased the speed at which the Post Office could transmit mail in areas serviced by train lines [10m]. After 1860, the railroads grew exponentially. "Total national mileage" expanded from around 35,000 miles in 1860 to almost 200,000 miles in 1890. The Postal Department took advantage of this fact and by 1870 was shipping more mail by train than by all other means combined [11m]. As the picture on the right [12m] shows, the agency harnessed the power of steamboats and trains in whatever combination was required to decrease the time it took to deliver a letter from one locality to another.

Railroad Post Office men in action

Railway Post Office workers

The Post Office did not simply rely on new methods of transportation to speed up deliveries of mail in postbellum America, the agency adopted (or was forced by Congress to adopt) a range of new services and techniques from 1863 through 1910 which decreased delivery times and at the same time increased the likelihood that the correspondence would reach its objective. One important such innovation was the establishment of the first railroad post offices in 1864 (picture on left of Railway Post Office men in action) [13m]. The impact of these traveling facilities is attested to by Wayne Fuller in his book, The American Mail: Enlarger of the Common Life: "The railroad post office was regarded as one of the wonders of the age…It allowed postal agents to do much of [the] sorting and distributing of mail...on the train…Before their establishment, distributing offices had been located here and there across the country...[14m]." Other measures, such as the department's use of “expensive machines to cancel stamps” and its offering of rewards for "the capture and conviction of mail robbers" increased the safety and speed of mail delivery [15m]. During the decades after 1860, the Post Office had enlarged and improved its mail system to the point to the point that by 1900, a postal historian could exclaim without a hint of insincerity that,

The people of the United States can justly take great pride in the postal system which they have established. The organization of the Post-office Department extends over a vast continental territory, throughout which there is practically no community too small and no hamlet too remote from the great centers of population, or from the ordinary means of transportation, to receive regular and reliable mail service [16m].
Victorian era child putting letter in mailbox

Child putting letter in mailbox, circa 1910

The growth of the Postal Service coincided with the transformation of the United States from an agrarian based economy to an industrial one. The Industrial Revolution's impact on society is well documented and does not need further elaboration here. It is important to note that a byproduct of the machine age was an ever increasing volume of correspondence. The Post Office also fostered the growth in the number of pieces of mail circulating through its system each year by keeping its postage rates low and by introducing postcards (see other sections of this website for information on postcards and citations) which allowed men and women to send messages at the cost of one penny a card. The agency’s efforts to achieve a relatively high level of efficiency and speed in the sorting and handling of the nation’s mail also helped spur the growth.

As a result of all of these factors, the number of pieces correspondence being handled by the Post Office increased dramatically in the decades after the Civil War. As an example, in 1850, Americans received an average of five letters each year. By 1900, that number had increased by almost 1900% to around 94 pieces of mail per person [17m]. This fact insured that the Postal Service would play a large role in connecting the hearts and minds of citizens of all income levels and ethnic persuasions (picture on right of boy reaching for mailbox--circa 1910 [18m]).

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the Postal Service helped bring disparate sections of postbellum American together was by its contributions, both direct and indirect, to the development of a quality, national transportation infrastructure. The Postal Department's policies concerning post routes [discussed in the section entitled, The Early Years (1775-1862)] encouraged the building of roads throughout the United States which linked states to each other [19m]. Railway companies and steamship lines also benefited monetarily from the needs of the Post Office. In 1860 alone, before the railroads became the primary carrier of the nation's mail, the Postal Service paid out $3,349,662 to railway companies [20m]. However, during the Victorian period, the Post Office touched people in ways that are not quite so obvious but as important.



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The Postal Service as a Catalyst of the Formation of National Communities

Maintaining Familial, Fraternal, and Political Bonds


One obvious way in which the Postal Service served as a nationalizing force was in its role as intermediary between families and friends who lived far apart from one another. Correspondence between for instance parents and their children helped to form vital social links that transcended state or local boundaries. It is likely that in many cases, these pieces of mail would also serve to educate the readers about events going on in another part of the country and in this way widen their view of reality. The letters that immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s sent home to their families provides a case in point. In 1889, the Post Office handled 87 million letters between America and Europe--a 2200 percent increase since the early 1860s. In these messages, the recent arrivals to the U.S. not only wrote about themselves but also provided information about the U.S. in general, thereby disseminating aspects of American culture into the homes of their relatives living in Germany, Ireland, or any of a myriad of foreign countries [21m]. The educational process was no different with per say, someone in rural Wisconsin writing home to his or her parents in New York City.

Grant & Colfax campaign postcard

Grant & Colfax campaign postcard from the 1868 Presidential Election

Fraternal and political organizations relied on the Postal Service to help them build national communities. By utilizing this cheap and efficient means of communication, these groups could reach thousands or even millions living in all areas of the United States. They were helped even further by the introduction of post cards. First used in the United States in 1861, these cards, which only cost one cent to send through the mail after 1872, were the "poor man's greeting card [22m]. They were also the “poor,” non-profit’s greeting card. By using postal cards, organizations could mail pertinent information and offers of membership to those living outside of their base of operations relatively cheaply (the image on the right is a campaign, postcard sent out by Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax, Republican nominees for President and Vice-President in the 1868 election [23m]).

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Forming National Communities Based on Knowledge and Ideas


After the Civil War, the growth of magazines and newspapers skyrocketed. For instance, in just a twenty year span, from 1885 through 1905, "…the number of magazines in the nation...almost doubled [24m]." At the same time, print organizations began to develop a "mass national audience [25m]." This development had a profound effect on the United States. It helped create nationwide communities who were united by the fact that they all possessed the same information. Further, their knowledge was not derived from elite within their community as often as it was obtained from scholars who lived several states away [26m]. Regardless of whether people lived in the city or in some remote part of rural America, they could keep in touch with the major political struggles occurring in Washington, D.C. as well as gain insight into the workings of the country's economy or learn about the newest scientific achievements [27m].
_Harper's Weekly_ cover

Harper's Weekly cover from January 6, 1877

The print media's growth during the postbellum years was due to several factors including "...improved methods of manufacturing paper, printing, and photengraving...[28m]." As important to these publications' development of national subscription lists were the "...cheaper mailing rates established by Congress in 1879 [29m]. This coupled with the postal benefits the magazines and newspapers had enjoyed since 1794 [for information on Postal discounts to newspapers and magazines, see The Early Years (1775-1862)] helped foster the development of nationwide communities built around the articles in a prominent journal or daily. The Postal Service also aided the growth of the magazine and newspaper industries in the Victorian period (picture on right--cover of the January 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly [30m]) by its ability to quickly and efficiently provide mail service to the majority of Americans living in both rural and urban America (though until the advent of rural free delivery, farmers would have to go into town to pick-up their mail).


_RFD NEWS_ from 1903

1903 edition of RFD NEWS from 1903

Perhaps even more significant in the dissemination of knowledge on a nationwide scale, the Postal Service instituted city free delivery service in 1863 and extended it to all towns of 10,000 or more in 1887. The Post Office accorded the same benefits to those living in the country with its establishment of rural free delivery service in 1896 (for more information on these two postal innovations, refer to Building National Communities Through Routinization and Standardization) [31m]. By making deliveries free of charge to their residences, the Post Office made it easier for people, especially those living in sparsely populated areas, to get their mail on a regular basis, thereby making it more beneficial to purchase subscriptions to weeklies and dailies. The significance of the Post Office's role in aiding the growth of national communities based on shared knowledge is shown by the political cartoon (picture on right) from a 1903 issue of RFD News [32m].

Victorian era postcard

Victorian era postcard of New York City(?) post office

During the Victorian era, the Postal Service was influential in disseminating knowledge to Americans through its backing of postcards. As I have already shown, organizations used these postal cards as part of their campaign to develop a national following. Postcards could also convey didactic messages. Many of these small pieces of cardboard (or some other, similar material), like the one shown on the right [33m], served as mini history lessons by providing the reader with a glimpse of a historic building or a vignette describing a past event of supposed important historical importance. Other cards conveyed patriotic messages or national ideals. In their various forms, postcards helped inform enormous numbers of Americans about the larger world in which they lived [34m]. The influence of postal cards is attested to by the fact that in 1909, 968 million of them "were mailed in the United States [35m]."


Signing of the Declaration of Independence (iss. 1869)

Stamp commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence (iss. 1869)

  Exposition stamp (iss. 1893)

Stamp from the Columbian Exposition series (iss. 1893)

While the Post Office had asignificant impact on the growth of the print media and postcard industries, its influence was only indirect. It did not own the magazines and newspapers and even when the Postal Service controlled the postcard industry (in the early 1870s), it could not determine what its customers would write on these cards [36m]. That is not the case when it comes to stamps. The nation’s mail agency directly handled the sale of these pieces of adhesive paper, whose small size deterred individuals from writing on their surface. An 1855 act had made the "prepayment of postage... mandatory [37m]." By 1900, this meant that Americans, on average, would come into contact with over a hundred stamps a year if only for brief periods at a time. Further, it is likely that people purchased stamps in bulk like they do today and kept them around the house or apartment until they were ready to use them, thereby insuring that the stamps were always nearby.

Benjamin Franklin stamp

Benjamin Franklin stamp

Andrew Jackson stamp (iss. 1883)

Stamp of Andrew Jackson (iss. 1883)

Millions of Americans living in the Victorian Period thus came into routine contact with postage stamps. More importantly, these people were exposed to the images on the front of these small pieces of adhesive paper. If pictures can say a thousand words, then the stamps were instrumental in informing immigrants about historical events of national importance (or at least those occurrences that the Postal Service considered to be significant). Postage stamps became in essence tiny history lessons on everything from the signing of the Declaration of Independence (pictured above right [38m]) to the landing of Columbus (pictured above left [39m]). Some of them informed recent arrivals to America about prominent figures in the country's past such as Andrew Jackson (pictured right [40m]) and Benjamin Franklin (pictured left [41m]). The stamps did not come equipped with much explanatory text; however, they provided a framework for understanding United States history, albeit a tenuous and incomplete one. The newly arrived could then pour other information they learned into this mental skeleton and eventually develop a viable, working comprehension of their adopted nation's history.

Postage stamps also performed cultural work in regards to the majority of the American population who had not recently immigrated to the United States. Most of these people, whether living in the populous Eastern states or in the most desolate portions of the Western plains, possessed at least a modicum of knowledge on United States history. For these men and women, the images on the stamps served as constant reminders of these past events. Each time that farmers in Nebraska or miners in West Virginia licked and pasted stamps of American icons such as Benjamin Franklin or Andrew Jackson, these individuals were confronted with the fact, if only on a subconscious level, that they were part of a larger community, which had been in existence for generations (how many depended on one's conception of terms like nation and community) [42m].

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Contributing to the Growth of Consumption Communities

Victorian era ad for Hires Root Beer

Hires Rootbeer ad, circa 1910

Perhaps the most significant difference between antebellum and postbellum American society lay in the fact that people living in Victorian America no longer produced most of what they consumed. Rather they came to depend on the corporate world to provide them with a majority both of their goods (circa 1910 picture on right is symbolic of this new era, ©2000 Denise Van Patten- Collect [43m]) and many of their services [44m]. Daniel Boorstin, a Pulitizer prize winning historian, argues that this change was pivotal in creating new, national communities where they had not existed before:

No American transformation was more remarkable than these new American ways of changing things from objects of possession...into vehicles of community...Nearly all objects from the hats and suits and shoes men wore to the food they ate became symbols and instruments of novel communities.... And there were created many communities of consumers. Men who never saw or knew one another were held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners. These consumption communities were quick; they were nonideological; they were democratic; they were public...Never before had so many men been united by so many things [45m].

The Postal Service was instrumental in creating these consumption communities.

ad page from _Harper's Weekly_ (1877)

Ad page from Harper's Weekly (1877)

This transformation in American culture could not have taken place without advertising. It goes without saying that businesses needed to find ways to market their products to a wide range of potential consumers who lived in areas separated by perhaps thousands of miles if they were going to build national consumer bases [46m]. One way in which organizations could publicize their products was by taking out ads in newspapers and magazines. As an example, the picture on the right represents an ad page from an 1877 edition of Harper's Weekly. As these forms of printed media increased in scope and size, they provided ever larger markets for those who had advertising contracts with them. After 1885, in part because of cheap postage rates which helped keep the cost of magazine ads reasonable and in part out of recognition of these publications' fast growing popularity, the "...nation's larger businesses who sought a national market took over their own publicity and began advertising in the old standard magazines [47m]." As shown in Forming National Communities Based on Knowledge and Ideas, the Postal Service was instrumental in aiding the growth of weeklies, dailies, monthlies, and other similar types of press.


Victorian era postcard ad for Cornish & Co.

Victorian era postacard ad for Cornish & Co.

Postcard ad for a book on Buffalo Bill

Postcard ad promoting a
biography of Buffalo Bill

In 1873, Congress authorized the use of postcards and set the price for their postage at once cent regardless of distance traveled [48m]. Because of their inexpensive nature, postcards became a popular vehicle for the mass marketing goods and services. Businesses could postcards, which hawked their particular product, to thousands of potential customers living in disparate parts of the nation for relatively small amounts of money [49m]. And this form of advertising may have in fact been more effective than other types if for no other reason than Victorian Americans received less than one hundred pieces of mail per year, so they had time to give personal attention to each letter or postcard that arrived in their mailbox [50m]. The popularity of these postcards as a type of advertising are indicated by the pictures (right, left, and below [51m]).

Postcard ad for saws and other hardware

Postcard ad for saws and other hardware

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Building National Communities through Routinization and Standardization


Victorian era Americans found themselves becoming linked together by their adherence to standards and routines. By 1910, a majority of people living in the United States adhered to the same system for keeping time, wore clothing, which conformed to national standards for length and girth, used government issued coins of set value to buy their goods, and relied on standardized measurements when building homes or marchinery. This aspect of postbellum culture separated it from any society that had come before it and provided a major impetus to the growth of the American nation state [52m]. The Postal Service played a role in fostering the populace's acceptance of a standardization and routinization.

Stamp from Columbian Expo series (iss. 1893)

One of the stamps in the Columbian Exposition
series (iss. 1893)

The Postal Service helped create a unified America based on standards and routines by establishing non-negotiable charges for mailing correspondence. The Post Office's rates were set in stone unless changed by the Postmaster General or by Congress. So, at least ideally, people living in the United States, regardless of their class status or their location, were linked together by the fact that they all knew or should know the exact amount of cash that it would take to mail a postcard or a one ounce package, and so forth. Further, even if these men and women did not know the price offhand, they realized that it would not go up or down depending on where they were in the nation. The ten cent stamp (pictured to the right [53m]) would procure the same services at any post office in the nation.


Washington D.C. postal carriers around 1900

Washington, D.C. letter carriers (circa 1900)

San Francisco mailcarriers (1894)

San Francisco mailcarriers (1894)

The Postal Service took several steps between 1863 and 1910 to regularize more than its charges for carrying letters and postcards. In 1868, the agency authorized the use of standard uniforms, which insured that every postal delivery man and woman under its direct control (the Post Office often subcontracted out its routes in sparsely populated portions of the nation in order to save money) would dress in similar attire. As an example, notice that the similarity in the dress of the mailmen in the photograph on the right, who worked in Washington, D.C. (circa 1900 [54m]), and those in the picture on the left who were stationed in San Francisco, California (1894 [55m]). Americans in every section of the country, regardless of their other differences, came to see Postal employees less as unique individuals and more as a representatives of a national, government agency. As important, it is likely that these people came to expect the men and women wearing the Postal Department uniforms to maintain a professional demeanor when on the job. In other words, the postal uniforms served the same purpose as a modern day store warranty. Regardless of the veracity of this statement, it is quite true that men and women in Victorian America formed communities, albeit weak, based on their shared assumptions concerning postal uniforms.

Victorian era postman running his daily route

Victorian era mailcarrier
running his daily route

In 1863, The Postal Service provided free delivery to cities of more than 50,000 people. In 1887 Congress amended the law and allowed "...the postmaster general to establish free delivery in towns of 10,000 where postal revenues were at least $10,000 a year. Better still, the postmaster general could, at his own discretion, extend the service to even smaller towns… [56m].” In 1893, the plan was extended on an experimental basis to rural areas and then made permanent in 1902. By 1910, the number of miles of RFD routes had risen from nothing before 1893 to 993,068 miles [57m]. Taking into account the number of pieces of mail that each person received per annum (94 pieces per person and 188 pieces per couple), the sight of the mail carrier on a road became a routine, every day occurrence. And usually, at least in the rural districts which were serviced by a limited number of letter carriers, the same postal employee would travel a certain route for years or even decades delivering mail to that area’s residents. Americans, if they concurred on nothing else, were united by their cognizance of and participation in this daily ritual [58m] (picture at right is of a mail carrier walking his route, 1890 [59m].


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The Post Office: A Promoter of Federal Authority and National Ideals

Public Symbols of National Authority

Victorian era postman

Victorian era lettercarrier

Victorian era postman

Victorian era lettercarrier

Perhaps the most significant contribution that the Victorian era Postal Service made towards creating a nation state lay in the fact that it maintained a public presence in the localities that is serviced. Its buildings, employees, and even the wagons and trains that carried the mail became symbols of national authority and legitimacy. Wayne Fuller, a noted postal historian, makes the same observations.

Beyond this, the postal service made the national government visible to every man, woman, and child in the nation...True, the Post Office did not always present a favorable image of the government, but this did not necessarily diminish its value as a bond of union. And if the rickety stagecoach that carried the mail, the forlorn building that served as a post office, and the slovenly postrider who plodded along the country roads with the mail were unimpressive, still they were representatives of the national government and reminders to the people of its presence in their midst [60m].

The most notable symbols were the letter carriers themselves (pictured above left and above right [61m]) with their distinctive uniforms. They stood out in the community and therefore served as the most prominent "reminders" of the existence of the federal government.

These letter carriers also served as symbols of national authority and legitimacy. While uniform styles changed from time to time during the decades after the Civil War, the cap or helmet in some form or another was a staple of mail carriers--at least those working in cities or large towns [62m]. As is obvious from the pictures above, the helments (and probably the caps as well) resembled those worn by police officers and other law enforcement agencies [63m]. By requiring its letter carriers to wear these hats, the Postal Service made a public statement about the national government's power. This message was repeated each time the mail carrier delivered a letter.

First RFD carriers in Lebanon, Tennessee

First RFD carriers in Lebanon, TN

Even if the postal workers did not wear caps or helmets, they were still required to wear badges [64m]. Even those who worked the rural routes, as did the early RFD carriers pictured to the right [65m], had to have a badge publicly displayed. It appears that most postal workers placed their badges on their hats. The badges, like the helmets and caps, acted as symbols of national authority. Few people could escape noticing the fact that their letter carrier's badge looked like the ones worn by the local magistrates. Some of the badge types are shown below [66m].

Postal Badge Railway mail services badge

Postal Badges







Victorian era post office in New York City(?)

Victorian era post
office in New York

Victorian era post office in Albany, New York

Post office in Albany, NY

In large cities, the Postal Service's main office often served as a striking symbol of American power. Many of these immense buildings, like the two pictured here (one on the left and one on the right [67m]), towered several stories into the air and covered thousands of square feet of land. Their ornate architectures gave further indication of the power and wealth of their owner--the United States government. One or more, large American flags flew from their enormous rooftops and many other U.S. flags were often perched on the sides of the buildings. A man or woman who visited one of these structures to mail a letter or to buy stamps could not avoid noticing the size and majesty of these structures, and by association of the power of the Post Office and its parent, the federal government.



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Marketing the Federal Government and National Ideals through Postage Stamps


Stamp of President Garfield

Stamp of President Grant (iss. 1882)

Stamp of soldiers guarding wagons

Stamp of troops guarding wagons

The Postal Service issued a number of postage stamps between 1863 and 1910 which emphasized the power and legitimacy of the federal government. While the stamps in and of themselves did not necessarily focus Americans' minds on the national government as opposed to their local or state legislatures, the small pieces of adhesive paper did serve to remind its purchasers that the government in Washington D.C. was vested with authority to govern the nation and represented its public face vis-a-vis foreign countries. When looking at the mattter from this angle, the Victorian era stamps of President Garfield (pictured left [68m]) and of soldiers guarding a wagon train (pictured right [69m]) take on new meaning. They convoke, among other things, images of the national government protecting all of the citizens of the United States (as Grant did in the Civil War and as the soldiers have done time and time again) from dangers within and without.

Stamps could also be used to focus Americans' attentions on national issues or themes. My ideas behind this hypothesis are similar to the ones that I have already posited in earlier paragraphs. So, I will stop my discussion here and left the stamps pictured below speak for themselves [70m].

Stamp of Charles Fremont on top of the Rocky Mountains

Stamp of Charles Fremont on top of the Rocky Mourntains

Columbian Exposition stamp

Stamp of ultramarine fleet





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postal service post office antebellum postbellum mailcarrier mail carrier postal worker railroad post office postmaster general postroads postroutes mail letters stamps postage stamps postcards postal cards victorian era unified nation state consumption communities community nationalism union postal uniforms helmets caps federal government authority country regionalism states localities confederation community communities route road railroad steamboat paddleboat fulton price modern Post Office Postal Department advertisement