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



One of the stamps from the Columbian Exposition Series 
(iss. 1893)

One of the Columbian Exposition stamps (iss. 1893)

The Early Years: 1775-1862





The Post Office and the Antebellum System

 

In the first few decades after it won its independence from England, the United States more closely resembled a collection of small communities than a national entity. Power and decision making were concentrated in the hands of state and local governments. Roads and other transportation infrastructures for travel and trade were for the most part either of poor quality or non-existent. This fact only strengthened the influence of individual communities [2e]. Until the early 1840s, much of the Post Office's policies and practices reflected their close connections, either by circumstance or intention, with the regionalist mindset of the majority of its patrons—the citizenry of the United States.

Alexis Clements

Photograph of Alexis Clements

Ideally,the early Postal Service, which possessed a federal mandate to deliver mail to the citizens of the United States, had significant power and influence on the population. In reality, through much of the antebellum period, the government agency remained relatively weak and its impact on the nation was not as great as it would become after the Civil War. For one thing, the "...postal network spread...over a vast area" of land [3e]. The Louisiana Purchase alone added around a "million square miles" to the United States [4e]. Worse, mail carriers had to maneuver over roads that were poor at best and non-existent at worst. As a case in point, view Alexis Clements' picture on the right of the screen. He "carried mail on foot between Green Bay and Chicago...[i]n the 1830's." Clement's, whose route was 240 miles long, more closely resembles one of the early pioneers than a Postal clerk [5e]. Due to a combination of reasons, including the poor state of the country's transportation infrastructure, the Postal Department was only able to provide services to a certain percentage of the population in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In 1812 for instance, the postal roads only covered 39,378 miles, which probably resulted in the fact that thousands were excluded from the mail system. Many more had to travel long distances in order to reach the nearest post office [6e].

In addition to its logistical problems, the young Postal Service had to deal with a loose organizational system that gave states and individual mail carriers a large degree of autonomy [7e]. For instance, until an act of 1836 made it illegal to do so, "...postmen withheld mail from opposing political factions...[8e]." These problems hampered the ability of the government agency to achieve its goals of insuring efficient and speedy delivery of the mail [9e], but the most pressing problem for the Post Office was the insistence of Congress that it make a profit. This legislative body (who had the final authority on Post Office matters) slowly changed these laws and eventually allowed the Postal Department to run a deficit; however, it did not fully disavow its antipathy to yearly postal deficits until the 1840s. The government's reticence limited the ability of its mail service to effectively do its job [10e].

By all accounts, the Post Office held up remarkably well in the face of immense difficulties. However, its weaknesses limited its ability to successfully achieve its stated goals much less focus Americans' minds on nationalistic ideals and interests. A mail service that in its "...early years ...was as primitive as the country itself" could not hope to successfully provide a strong link for the disparate communities scattered over an immense area [11e]. As an example, "...Congress [relying on the mail], on February 4th, 1815, first received news of the Battle of New Orleans, which had been fought January 8th [12e]."

Civil War post office

Civil War post office

As another fetter on its ability to unify the nation, the Post Office’s loose organizational structure hindered its abilities to act as a public symbol of the United States or its government in Washington D.C. For instance, the people in the Postal Department's employ usually did not stand out in any significant way from the others who lived in the communities they serviced. The photograph located on the right of a Civil War era post office provides a good illustration [13e]. While enumerating its weaknesses, it is also important to note that the nation’s mail service did take some important steps before 1863, which would set it on course to become the catalyst for the new nationalistic, industrial society that came of age in the Victorian period.




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A Foreshadowing of Things to Come

 

The Post Office (or in many cases, Congress acting on behalf of the Postal Service) did enact some measures which were instrumental in helping spur the agency’s extraordinary growth in the years after 1863--to the point where it was handling over six and a half billion pieces of mail by 1899 [14e]. These legislative initiatives also insured that in the postbellum era, the Postal Department would play a key part in transforming a confederation of small communities into a powerful nation state whose citizens were united by their common ideals and practices.

Map of early Postal expansion

Postal expansion through 1803

The Post Office's greatest,early victory may have come when Congress enacted legislation in 1792 deeming roads used by the nation's mail service as post routes and strengthening this law in 1825. The law gave the federal government some level of authority over the passages traversed by postal agents and thus facilitated the mail carriers ability to deliver his letters without hindrance from local or state authorities [15e]. Localities had to connect to a post road before the Postal Department would service their town or county. This fact encouraged road building from the outset, as people wanted to be able to send and receive letters to family, friends, and businesses (if only on rare occasions). In this way, the Post Office helped to link the disparate sections of the new nation [16e]. The United States government in 1813 made "all waters used for steam transportation" post routes and extended this regulation to include all railroad lines in 1838, which kept the state and local authorities from harassing or otherwise slowing down steamboats and trains carrying the country’s letters. [17e]. Notwithstanding their importance in pre-Civil War United States culture, the laws governing postal routes would come to have enormous significance in the postbellum era (Picture at right is a map of Postal expansion through 1803 [18e]).

Another important achievement of the early Post Office was brought about by Congress’ decision to give newspapers and magazines "special rates [19e]." This act would have great importance in the decades after the Civil War as the nation became more literate and the number of publications increased. However, it had an impact on antebellum society as well. As a result of the reduced rates, the print media were able to make their papers available to a larger number of people, especially those living in the rural areas of the country, thereby helping to inform an ever larger number of Americans about the events occurring outside of their particular locality [20e]. A statement by a British citizen traveling through the United States in the 1840s is apt: "'With us...it is chiefly the inhabitants of towns that read the journals; in America the vast body of the rural population peruse them with the same avidity and universality as do their brethren in the towns [21e]."

As regarded its financing, the Postal Department achieved a significant victory in 1847 when Congress declared that the federal agency was the only organization authorized to distribute mail, thereby attenuating the threats that private carriers posed to the viability of the Post Office. The mail carrier scored another success in 1851 when the government decided to officially eliminate the requirement that the agency balance its annual budget. In the same year, the Postal Service reduced postage rates for the second time (the first rate reduction occurred in 1845) which made it more affordable for people of all income levels to send letters and other correspondence [22e]. As Clyde Kelly, a postal historian suggests, these actions "...made possible the Post Office as we know it to-day [23e]." These laws, among others, freed the Post Office to expand its services in ways that would touch the lives of countless millions of Americans and bind them together as one nation during the Victorian Period

Stamp of steamboat going under Mississippi River Bridge (iss. 1898)

Stamp of steamboat going under the Mississippi River Bridge (iss. 1898)

Stamp in honor of Hudson's famous steamboat journey (iss. 1909)

Stamp in honor of Fulton's steamboat journey (iss. 1909)

In addition to these accomplishments, the antebellum era Postal Service made use of new inventions and improved methods of transportation as they became available. As one Postmaster General stated, '"[f]rom the beginning of the Postal Service...the public has been willing to sanction any reasonable outlay, which is devoted either to experimental efforts or to permanent improvements of the service [24e]." As evidence of its willingness to embrace new technologies that it thought would improve its organization, the Post Office began shipping its mail on steamboats and later on trains almost as soon as these new machines came into general use [25e]. The ties between the nation's mail service and the steamboat were important enough that it commissioned a stamp in 1898 picturing one of these ships going under a bridge [1140 and a postage stamp in 1909 celebrating Robert Fulton's historic paddleboat journey up the Hudson River in 1807 (see pictures to the right and left [26e]).

 



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