The history of the United States Postal Service® is an ongoing story of enormous depth and breadth, rooted in a single, great principle: every person in the United States — no matter who, no matter where — has an equal right to secure, reliable, and affordable mail service.
For more than two centuries, the Postal Service™ has delivered on this promise, uniting a diverse nation while continually embracing change.
Chronology of Events
1775 - Benjamin Franklin appointed first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress
lTo foster travel and commerce, from 1785 to 1845 the Post Office Department favored stagecoaches when awarding mail transportation contracts, as directed by Congress. Stagecoaches carried passengers and freight in addition to U.S. Mail.
When railroads were established in the 1830s, the Department quickly embraced them. Due to railroads' greater speed and reliability, the transit time from New York to New Orleans was reduced from about 18 days in 1835 to just over two days in 1885. From the 1870s to the 1950s, railroads were the primary mode of mail transportation, with trains zipping mail from station to station.
Mail aboard trains not only traveled faster — it traveled smarter. An army of postal workers called “railway mail clerks” rode the rails in specially equipped cars called Railway Post Offices. From 1864 to 1977, railway mail clerks expedited delivery by sorting mail en route as it rumbled to its destination. To save even more time, clerks exchanged mail at smaller Post Offices “on the fly” without the train stopping. Clerks would toss out one pouch of mail and, seconds later, scoop up another pouch — filled with the town’s outgoing mail — that was hanging track-side from a special crane. Clerks used a steel rod called a “catcher arm,” attached to the side of rail cars, to “catch” specially-designed mailbags.
In 1918, the Post Office Department took to the sky. But whereas with railroads the Department had always contracted with private companies, when airmail started, there was no aviation industry. So the Department created one — building airfields, using its own pilots, planes, and mechanics and fine-tuning flight instruments and navigational aids on the ground. By the end of 1920, airmail routes had been established from New York to San Francisco. Although at first mail was flown only during daylight, the transit time was still nearly a day faster than the cross-country all-rail time. Beginning in 1924, airmail was flown day and night, taking New York mail to San Francisco in about a day and a half. In 1926, the Department began contracting out airmail service, and by the end of the next year all airmail was carried under contract. Many U.S. air carriers — including Delta, American, and United — owe their existence partly to airmail contracts they were awarded in the 1920s and 30s.
Delivering the Mail
Before 1863, postage paid only for the delivery of mail from Post Office to Post Office. That year, Congress authorized the establishment of free city delivery. Within a year, free delivery had been established in 65 cities nationwide. By 1880, 104 cities were served, and by 1900, the service had spread to 796 cities.
Initially, mail carriers hand-delivered mail to customers. By 1912, new customers were required to provide slots or mailboxes, and in 1923, all customers were required to do so.
Free home delivery in the countryside — called “rural free delivery” or RFD — began experimentally in 1896 at a few offices in West Virginia; within a year, routes were operating in 29 states. The popular service was made permanent in 1902. The number of rural carriers climbed from fewer than 500 in 1899 to more than 32,000 just six years later.
Rural delivery eased social isolation by bringing mail directly to farms; before, getting mail required a lengthy trip into town. In 1909, one customer claimed that in his community, rural delivery had “cut down the cases of suicide and insanity among farmers' wives fully 50 percent.” Rural delivery also spurred road improvement, since passable roads were required for service.
On New Year’s Day 1913, carriers began delivering packages weighing up to 11 pounds via a new service called Parcel Post. The weight limit increased to 20 pounds that same year and soon rose even higher. Previously, four pounds had been the limit. Rural delivery, Parcel Post, and the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs were the original “shopportunity.” The effect on the national economy was electric. Three hundred million packages were mailed in the first six months of Parcel Post service. The first year, Sears filled five times as many orders as it did the year before.
Stamped for Success
▀ Before postage stamps were introduced, Postmasters marked “PAID” on letters if postage was paid in advance, as on the 1839 letter below. Usually, Postmasters marked the amount due on letters, because until prepayment was required in 1855, postage was generally paid by the recipient.
▀ People rarely used envelopes before July 1845, when two sheets of paper cost twice as much to mail as one. An envelope would have counted as an extra sheet.
▀ In 1847, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington became the first people to appear on U.S. stamps, followed by Thomas Jefferson in 1856, and Andrew Jackson seven years later. Washington has appeared on more U.S. stamps than any other person.
▀ The first woman, Hispanic, Native American, and African-American individuals honored on U.S. postage stamps were Martha Washington, David G. Farragut, Pocahontas, and Booker T. Washington.
▀ The Elvis stamp, issued in 1993, has been the best-selling commemorative stamp to date. Since then, the Postal Service has issued triangular, round, and holographic stamps.
▀ Stamp collecting in the U.S. has been traced back to around 1856, when David Latimer, a New Jersey schoolboy, pasted 35 three-cent George Washington stamps in his German language textbook.
▀ In 2013, the William H. Gross Gallery — the largest stamp gallery in the world — opened at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Images of every U.S. postage stamp are online in the National Postal Museum’s Arago™ database, online at arago.si.edu.
▀ The American Philatelic Research Library, at stamplibrary.org, is the largest philatelic library in the United States.
Letter marked "PAID," 1839 (Letter "From Caroline Weston to Deborah Weston; Friday, February, 1, 1839," courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books under a CC BY 2.0 license, www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/2653241094.)
Price of a Postage Stamp for First-Class Mail Since 1863
Before 1863, postage rates for letters were based both on the number of sheets or weight of a letter and the distance it traveled.
Until 1971, rates were set by Congress and bore no relation to costs. Congress appropriated funds to make up for annual shortages in postal revenue.
In 1970, Congress transformed the Post Office Department into the United States Postal Service and gave it a self-funding mandate, directing that postal operations be financed from postal revenue.
Since about 1980, postage rates for First-Class Mail® have remained more or less constant in real terms. For example, the rate in 1981, eighteen cents, equaled the rate in 2013, 46 cents, after adjusting for inflation.
In 2007, the Postal Service issued its first Forever stamp. Since 2011, all First-Class Mail commemorative stamps have been Forever stamps. They will always be equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce price.
Rate, in Cents
July 1, 1863
October 1, 1883
November 2, 1917
July 1, 1919
July 6, 1932
August 1, 1958
January 7, 1963
January 7, 1968
May 16, 1971
March 2, 1974
December 31, 1975
May 29, 1978
March 22, 1981
November 1, 1981
February 17, 1985
April 3, 1988
February 3, 1991
January 1, 1995
January 10, 1999
January 7, 2001
June 30, 2002
January 8, 2006
May 14, 2007
May 12, 2008
May 11, 2009
January 22, 2012
January 27, 2013
January 26, 2014
Did you know?
THAT Women have always served as Postmasters? Mary Katherine Goddard was Postmaster of Baltimore, Maryland, when Benjamin Franklin was named the first American Postmaster General in July 1775, making her the first woman Postmaster in the United Colonies, predecessor of the United States.
THAT William Carney, the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, was also one of the first African Americans appointed a city letter carrier? Carney was awarded the medal for his service during the Civil War at the Battle of Fort Wagner. In 1869, Carney was appointed one of the first letter carriers in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He served in the position until 1901.
THAT the Pony Express was not operated by the Post Office Department, but by a private company? It ran for 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861, and operated under contract as a U.S. Mail route during only its final four months. The express was discontinued when the transcontinental telegraph line was completed.
THAT William Cooper Nell, the earliest known African-American civilian employee of the federal government, was a postal employee? He served as a clerk at the Boston Post Office from 1863 until his death in 1874.
THAT Roswell Beardsley was the longest-serving Postmaster? He was Postmaster of the North Lansing, New York, Post Office for over 74 years, from 1828 to 1903, serving under 20 Presidents and 34 Postmasters General.
THAT Although it was against postal regulations, several children were “mailed” in the early years of Parcel Post? In 1913, Jesse and Mathilda Beagle sent their 8-month old son to his grandmother, who lived a few miles away, via U.S. Mail. Baby Beagle was just under the 11-pound limit for parcels. His parents paid the rural carrier fifteen cents’ postage and insured their “parcel” for $50.
THAT In 1916, the Postal Service transported nearly 40 tons of bricks through the mail? To save money, W. H. Coltharp had 15,000 bricks mailed from Salt Lake City to Vernal, Utah, in 50-pound packages, to help build the Bank of Vernal. Soon afterwards postal officials revised regulations to prohibit such large mailings.
THAT The last dogsled route in Alaska, from Gambell to Savoonga, was converted to an airplane route in 1963?