A political history of the US Postal Service
It's been a turbulent week for the US Postal Service. With revenues plummeting as mail volume drops, the Postal Worker's Union leader recently estimated that the service is likely to literally "run out of money" by October. The crisis has once again sparked a debate on the organization of America's most popular public institution. Many have called for structural reforms, while others have advocated increased investment and a return to postal banking to raise revenues.
A 1998 book by RICHARD R. JOHN argues that between its founding in 1775 and the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844, the post office represented a communications revolution as influential for American public life as the telegraph, the telephone, and the computer.
From the introduction:
"By 1828, the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France. In 1831, the postal system, with more than 8,700 postmasters, employed just over three quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. (The federal army, in contrast, consisted of a mere 6,332 men.) The postal system transmitted 13.8 million letters and 16 million newspapers at a cost of $1.9 million through a network that extended over 116,000 square miles.
Thanks to a variety of generous government subsidies, a large percentage of the total volume of the mail consisted of newspapers and public documents that described the proceedings of Congress. This steady flow of information helped to introduce a widely scattered population to two key ideas: that the boundaries of the community in which they lived extended well beyond the confines of their individual locality; and that the central government might come to shape the pattern of everyday life."
Link to the publisher's page.
- A couple links from our 2018 newsletter on postal banking: A 2014 article by Mehrsa Baradaran argues that subsidies for postal banking are "appropriate and justifiable." Link. A USPS white paper details how the policy could expand financial services to the 68 million underbanked Americans. Link.
- An extensive legislative history of "the concepts, policies, practices, and controversies associated with universal postal service from 1790 to 1970." Link.
- Léonard Laborie on parcel post and globalization: "In 1880, several Universal Postal Union member states signed a convention for the exchange of parcel post, opening a new channel in the world of commerce. By the end of the 19th century, millions of packets poured into post offices and railway stations, crossed countries, and created unprecedented transnational connections." Link.
- "Couriers, ships, caravans, and rest houses—throughout pre-modern history, such features have been central to the infrastructural matrix without which complex and enduring states, empires, and polities are not conceivable." Gagan Sood reviews Adam Silverstein's Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. Link. And Ying-wan Cheng on Postal Communication in China and Its Modernization, 1860–1896. Link.