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



John Charles Fremont on the Rocky Mountains 
(iss. 1898)

Stamp of John Fremont on theRocky Mountains (iss. 1898[4i])

Introduction

 

The United States of America in the late 1700's and the early 1800's resembled a collection of small communities rather than the powerful nation state it was to become in the decades after 1863. Travel and communication between different groups of Americans was hampered by the lack of good forms of transportation and by the dearth of any national forms of communication--public or private [1i]. Many people never traveled far outside of their own community and did not harbor any deeply ingrained nationalistic feelings or beliefs. In fact, most Americans, slave or free, often knew little about the affairs of their state much less that of their country. Their world centered on their family and perhaps the doings of a few neighbors. This is not to say that individuals living in the United States during the antebellum period possessed no knowledge of the larger world; however, their view of reality remained a provincial one. In this segmented world, these societies developed habits and practices that were often unique to one particular town or to one region of the country. It is quite likely that someone living in WesternVirginia would have little in common with his or her peers living in other states [2i]. Even as late as 1860, this pattern of life was still prominent in much of the United States, though a national culture had begun to develop [3i].

American altered rapidly in the latter part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. During this period, the United States social and economic infrastructure was transformed from a rural one to an urban one [5i]. Advances in technology as well as in methods of working ushered in a new era, and the nation's productivity skyrocketed [6i]. The new technological inventions as well as other changes occurring at this time fostered the growth of a national culture. One of the most important of these changes affected how people living in the United States procured both their necessities and their luxury items. In postbellum America, men and women came to rely in large part on massed produced goods sold by stores and mail order catalogues for both their necessities and their luxuries [7i]. These people, who in an earlier generation would have made their own clothes and grown their own food, were now united by the fact that they all ate the same things and wore the same clothes, which were made by the same manufacturer [8i]. The rise of the Industrial Age did not only affect people's buying habits.

The United States Industrial Revolution allowed citizens who lived miles apart to communicate with each other quickly. In addition, the growth of railroads and other speedy forms of transportation made it easier for Americans who were not members of the upper-class to travel in order to visit family or to relocate [9i]. These advances also meant that "...the opportunity to widen the market for any item was unlimited [10i]." This market did not only include goods but also information, publishers could market their magazines and books to a truly "national audience [11i]." The proliferation of museums and galleries allowed people, at least those living in cities, to view buildings, animals, or other scenes that were thousands of miles away [12i].

These changes affected Americans in many different ways. However, perhaps most importantly, the period from around 1863-1910 transformed the country from a collection of semiautonomous communities and regions into a nationalistic entity whose citizens shared many things in common. Daniel Boorstin sums up this point:

Americans reached out to one another. A new civilization found new ways of holding men together... by common effort and common experience, by the apparatus of daily life, by their ways of thinking about themselves... Men were divided not by their regions or their roots, but by objects and notions that might be anywhere and could be everywhere [13i].

The United States' mail service played a large part in this transformation process.

The Postal Service acted as a catalyst for the enormous changes that occurred in American society between 1863 and 1910. During this period, the agency adhered to practices which allowed it to go from providing services to a small portion of the population to becoming a common site in even the most rural part of the United States. Many of the policies that it adopted served to help unify the various sections of the country to each other. Because of the scope of the mail service's operations, it aided in acquainting a large cross section of Americans with the homogenizing aspects of the new, commercial culture that was developing during this period. In addition, the Post Office disseminated nationalistic ideals, which focused its customers' loyalties on the government in Washington and away from their state or local power centers. By achieving these tasks, the Postal Service helped to create "One nation under God [14i]." But in order to fully comprehend these accomplishments, it is necessary to briefly look at the Postal Department's early years.



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