Post Office stations and branches are facilities subordinate to a local Post Office that provide a range of postal services. Until 1908, the terms "station" and "branch" were used interchangeably. (See Glossary.)
Classified Stations: Post Offices Branch Out by 1837 to Serve Growing Cities The earliest known Post Office branch was established in New York City on January 1, 1837, at the corner of William Street and Exchange Place, to satisfy merchants and banks that complained that the main Post Office had been re-located "too far up-town."(1) In 1843 the branch was staffed by about a dozen clerks. By 1845 the William Street branch had closed and another one opened at Chatham Square – again, to satisfy citizens inconvenienced by the removal of the main Post Office to yet another location. By order of the Postmaster General, the Chatham Square branch of the New York City Post Office closed on December 31, 1846.
Although on March 3, 1847, Congress specifically authorized the Postmaster General to "establish one or more branch post offices . . . in any city . . . for the convenience of the inhabitants," from 1847 to 1857 only the main Post Office operated in New York City.(2) In 1853, the New-York Daily Times made the following comparison to illustrate the inadequacy of having only one Post Office in a city of "some six hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants":
If the Croton Company were to deliver the water through one pipe only, it would cause the City no little inconvenience, and it seems to us that New-York is placed in a very similar predicament in possessing but one Post-Office. . . .
It is absolutely necessary that we should have branch Post-offices distributed over the City, and vitally connected with the General Post-office in Nassau-street.(3)
The Times considered the numerous "illegal" private posts to be highly unreliable, stating that "a letter once committed to their care is about as certain of reaching its destination as a balloon committed to the four winds of Heaven."(4)
By mid-1857, the New York Post Office more fully served the city's growing population with six stations located between 1½ to 3 miles from the main Post Office. By the early 1860s, Post Office stations had opened in other cities as well.
Stations Created in Conjunction with City and Rural Free Delivery Stations were established not only to keep pace with cities' population growth but also when formerly independent Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations of a larger nearby Post Office. Sometimes this was done to provide free mail delivery to customers, since initially residents of only the most populous cities were eligible for free delivery. On July 1, 1863, when free city delivery began, six Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations of the New York Post Office. Around the same time, six Post Offices were consolidated with the Philadelphia Post Office. In the 1870s, more than a dozen Boston-area Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations "within delivery of that office."(5) Postmasters of the discontinued Post Offices were given the option of becoming station superintendents. In his 1874 Annual Report, Postmaster General Marshall Jewell noted that Post Offices near Brooklyn and Saint Louis had also been discontinued and converted to stations. He explained that:
Consolidating deliveries into postal centers, and distributing the carriers between the main office and its branches, shortens the routes and expedites the deliveries and collections, and insures a more harmonious service than could be secured by several independent offices within the same territory.(6)
Photograph of employees of Station S, Brooklyn, New York, Post Office, in 1888. The station, now named Bushwick, still serves Brooklyn residents. In the 1890s the Post Office Department favored consolidating smaller, suburban Post Offices with larger ones to provide more customers with free delivery, to streamline and modernize management, and to bring more employees into the classified service. Postmasters and other employees of discontinued suburban Post Offices who were absorbed into the ranks of the larger Post Office became eligible for classified Civil Service positions. "Classified" positions were obtained by merit and were safe-guarded from the "spoils" system of political appointments, which was widely recognized as the Achilles' heel of the Department as it led to regular brain-drains.(7)
Consolidating Post Offices also helped put a slight dent in the yearly increase in the number of Post Offices. In 1895 there were 70,064 Post Offices and the number was rising every year, creating bureaucratic bottlenecks. All postmasters reported directly to Washington, so that
If the Postmaster at a hamlet in the far West desires a ball of twine, he is obliged to make a requisition upon the department at Washington, and the request has to take the course followed by others of vastly greater importance.(8)
In July 1894, the delivery area of the Chicago Post Office almost doubled – providing service to nearly 97 percent of the city's inhabitants – when 59 independent Post Offices "within the confines of Chicago" were consolidated with the Chicago Post Office.(9) Most of the discontinued Post Offices were converted to stations, often superintended by their former postmasters. The stations provided identical service to customers but were administratively subordinate to the Chicago Post Office. In January 1896 Postmaster General William Wilson issued "a number of orders" consolidating Post Offices, including 20 Post Offices in Maryland that merged with the Baltimore Post Office.(10)
The consolidation of Post Offices was opposed by some members of Congress, who wanted to preserve postmaster (patronage) positions and preserve Post Offices as community centers for rural customers. Congress expressed concern about some Post Office conversions. For example, the Ellicott City, Maryland, Post Office, which was made a station of the Baltimore Post Office in January 1896 even though it was 13 miles from that city, while some offices closer to Baltimore remained independent.(11) To curb the discontinuance of local Post Offices, an Act of Congress of June 9, 1896, prohibited the discontinuance of Post Offices located at county seats and also prohibited the Post Office Department from establishing stations, substations, or branches more than five miles beyond the corporate limits of a city. Despite repeated requests by the Postmaster General to lift the five-mile restriction, it remained in place until 1958.(12)
Rural stations were established in conjunction with the first county-wide rural free delivery service, which began on December 20, 1899, in Carroll County, Maryland. Sixty-three independent Post Offices, which farmers previously had to visit to get their mail, were discontinued when county residents received free home delivery. Four of the discontinued Post Offices, which served villages of 500 to 700 inhabitants, were converted to stations of the Westminster Post Office. Initially called "rural free delivery stations," by 1902 they were referred to simply as "rural stations."(13) The 1901 Annual Report of the Postmaster General explained:
In county service may be found what are known as rural free-delivery postal stations. They are established at points where it is desired to provide special money-order and registry facilities for patrons residing in a village or hamlet, and to secure a meeting point for rural carriers for the supply and exchange of mails of routes distant from the main distributing offices. A rural station is invariably established in lieu of a post-office . . . (14)
Naming Stations and Branches Initially, Post Office stations were designated by letters or local names. Beginning in 1897, stations were designated as independent if they received and dispatched registered mail directly, bypassing the main Post Office. In May 1908, to help preserve the identity of communities that lost their Post Office, Postmaster General George Meyer ordered that all postal stations located outside of city limits be called branches and that they be separately listed in the United States Official Postal Guide. At the same time, the name of the main Post Office was removed from the branch's postmarking stamp, so that, for example, the postmark would read "Cambridge, Mass.," instead of "Boston, Mass., Cambridge Station." Beginning in 1981, postal guidelines specified that the names of new branches and classified stations should indicate their locations. For example, in 1987 the station established in the East Bay neighborhood of Provo, Utah, was named East Bay Station.
On September 20, 1960, the first self-service or "nonpersonnel" rural station was established experimentally at English Lake, Indiana. The station provided individual mailboxes and large boxes for receiving parcels, a stamp vending machine, and a letter drop for outgoing mail, and was briefly staffed by a rural carrier while on his or her route. By 1966, nonpersonnel rural stations and branches were made a permanent service. These units provide for the collection and delivery of ordinary mail and the sale of stamps. Special services such as certified and registered mail are provided by a rural carrier who remains at the unit for at least 15 minutes per day.
To help bring the Post Office to the customer, in 1986 the Postal Service opened "satellite retail units" – small retail spaces provided rent-free in suitable buildings, staffed by postal clerks. A similar concept, "Post Office Express," was launched in 1995. "Post Office Express" units are full-service retail units staffed by postal employees, located primarily in large chain retail stores and open during store hours, including evenings and weekends.
In 2005, 5,622 classified stations and branches served postal customers.
Contract Stations: "Drug Store Post Offices: Mr. Wanamaker Wants An Office on Every Corner . . . "(September 1, 1889, headline in The New-York Times)
Although contract stations were apparently established on a small scale by the early 1880s, Postmaster General John Wanamaker could "claim originality for . . . making a large number of drug stores branch offices."(15) Wanamaker wanted to put Post Office branches in corner drug stores and other businesses both as a public convenience and to relieve overburdened postal facilities. Storekeepers bid for annual contracts, whereby they received a lump sum to provide space in their store and the services of a store clerk who would sell money orders, register letters, and receive letters and parcels for mailing. The public benefited by having more convenient postal facilities. The Post Office Department benefited because contracting out services was cheaper than hiring more clerks to work at already-crowded Post Offices, and increased facilities generated more business. And the storekeepers benefited. Although they usually did not profit directly from providing the services, a Post Office branch attracted increased trade.
In January 1890, 16 contract stations opened in New York City. All but two of these stations were in drug stores, and most of the store clerks that oversaw the postal business were young women. By December 1892, contract stations – called "sub-stations" – outnumbered regular stations in New York City.(16)
Although in the early 1890s contract stations in some cities were called substations and were designated by numbers, the nomenclature was inconsistent until 1897, with the terms "station," "substation," and "branch" sometimes used interchangeably.(17) On November 12, 1897, Postmaster General James Gary issued Order Number 595:
The following classification of stations and substations is hereby adopted:
All stations or sub-stations, as now designated, that receive and dispatch mail, either by carriers or through boxes and general delivery, will be known as stations and will be designated by letters or local names.
Sub-stations issue and pay money orders, register letters and parcels, sell postal supplies, but do not deliver mail, and will be designated by numbers.(18)
An article in the December 24, 1901, issue of The Washington Post, describing the Christmas mailing rush, lauded the utility of that city's substations:
It is noticeable that most of the packages, as most of the letters during ordinary times, are mailed at the substations, of which there are fifty-six. The custom of maintaining substations in the department stores, drug stores, &c., is a great time-saving device for the public, as the purchaser now can buy his presents and mail them in the same building.
Most of the thousands of dollars' worth of stamps sold daily are also disposed of at the substations in small quantities. At regular intervals all day and until late at night collections are made from the substations, so that practically no time is lost by mailing there. Naming Contract Stations In 1902, use of the term "substation" was officially discontinued. Contract stations were to be designated by number only, for example, "Station No. 1." Classified stations (staffed by postal employees and providing delivery) were to be designated by letters or local names, for example, "Station A," or "Austin Station." The first known postal use of the term "contract station" was in 1906.
The 1913 Postal Laws and Regulations clarified that contract stations could be located outside of the city limits, and provided the following description:
Stations and branch post offices shall be divided into the following classes: (a) Classified ... (b) Contract, those usually located in drug stores or other places of business and operated under control of persons not in the classified service who shall be required to furnish quarters and equipment, heat, light, and the necessary clerical assistance.(19)
In 1916, an act of Congress permitted the Postmaster General to enter into contracts for two years, rather than one, as previously. In 1958, contract terms increased to three years. Since 1974, contract agreements have been for indefinite periods of time.
Since at least the 1960s the more general term "unit" has sometimes been used instead of "station" or "branch." Contract stations and branches have been referred to variously as contract units, contract post office units, and contract postal units.(20) In 1973, newly-created contract stations and branches in rural areas were called community post offices (CPOs), and by 1975 the term was used to refer to all rural stations and rural branches. Community post offices retain the ZIP Code and distinct address of the former Post Office, making them more acceptable to rural patrons concerned about the loss of community identity.
In a year-long experiment beginning on October 7, 1988, 11 contract units operated in Sears stores in the Midwest, the first contract units in major department stores. Although successful, Sears did not renew the year-long contracts after postal workers, concerned about future possible job cuts, threatened a boycott. In 2003, in another experiment at taking the Post Office to the consumer, the Postal Service partnered with Hallmark Gold Crown stores, putting contract postal units in selected Hallmark stores. The Postal Service continues to explore ways to increase customer convenience.
In 2005, postal customers were served by 3,116 contract stations and branches and 1,019 community post offices.
Temporary Stations and Branches Established for Special Occasions by 1876 The earliest known temporary station operated at the U.S. Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The station, staffed by six clerks and ten letter carriers, offered general delivery, lock box, money order, and registered letter services to the fair's nearly nine million visitors. The letter carriers hourly collected letters from lamp-post mounted letter boxes scattered throughout the 285-acre site.(21)
Temporary stations to handle soldiers' mail were first established in June 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Stations were established at military camps both at home and abroad. The station at Chickamauga National Park in Georgia handled as many as 75,000 pieces of First-Class Mail in a single day, with its "general aggregate of business" rivaling that "at many cities with a population of a quarter of a million persons."(22)
Photograph of the branch of the New York City Post Office located at Camp Wikoff on Long Island, which operated from August to October 1898 (from 1898 Annual Report of the Postmaster General). Up to 17 postal clerks worked at the branch from 5:20 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night, sorting mail for troops. Temporary military stations were first established during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Temporary stations to help handle holiday mail appeared by 1919, when four temporary Post Office stations helped handle Christmas mail in Washington, D.C., from December 15 through 25.
Temporary stations have been established at stamp shows since 1926, beginning with the International Stamp Exhibition held in New York City from October 16 to 23, 1926. Temporary philatelic stations have their own special postmarking stamp, giving the station name and the date the mail is cancelled. The 1926 International Philatelic Exhibition Station also served as a venue for the release of the two-cent Alexander Hamilton's Battery stamp on October 18. Since that time, temporary stations have often served as venues for "First Day of Issue" stamp-release events, with temporary stations sometimes established specifically for such events.
Since the early 1980s, postmasters have also sometimes set up temporary stations at state fairs, conventions, parades, and other locations, to provide customers with special pictorial cancellations commemorating local events.
Image of a pictorial cancellation featuring a woodpecker, offered at a temporary station at the 2004 Kern Valley Bioregions Festival near Weldon, California.
A postal unit administered by a Post Office. Beginning in May 1908 it referred specifically to units located outside of city limits, although that distinction does not always hold true today. (See "Station.")
Classified units are operated by postal personnel.
Community Post Office (CPO)
Community post offices are contract units which provide service in small communities. Prior to 1973 they were known as rural stations and rural branches.
Contract units are operated by private businesses under contract with the Postal Service. The term "contract" was used in this context by 1906.
Contract Postal Unit (CPU)
Since the 1960s, contract stations and branches have also been referred to as contract post office units, contract postal units, or simply contract units.
Independent units receive and dispatch registered and other mail directly, bypassing the main Post Office. The term appears in Post Office directories from 1897 to 1965.
Nonpersonnel Rural Unit
Self-service unit providing collection and delivery of ordinary mail and sale of stamps. Special services (sale of money orders, stationery, and acceptance and delivery of certified, insured, registered, and COD mail) are provided by a rural carrier when he or she services the unit. Carriers are required to remain at the unit a minimum of 15 minutes each day. Nonpersonnel units were first established experimentally in 1960.
A facility which provides postal services to a community and is headed by a Postmaster.
Post Office Express
Retail units located in large chain retail stores and open during store hours, staffed by postal employees. First established in 1995.
Rural (Station or Branch)
See "Community Post Office."
A postal unit administered by a Post Office. Beginning in May 1908 it referred specifically to units located inside city limits, although that distinction does not always hold true today. (See "Branch.")
Early term for a postal unit administered by a Post Office. From 1895 to 1902 it referred specifically to contract stations, which were not delivery offices but provided money order and registry service and sold postal supplies. Use of the term was officially discontinued in 1902.
General term denoting station, branch, or community post office – postal facilities subordinate to a Post Office.
Endnotes: 1. "The New York Post-Office," Appleton's Journal: a Monthly Miscellany of Popular Literature, September 1878, 193. See letters of July 18, October 10, and November 14, 1836, from Postmaster General Amos Kendall to Jonathan Coddington, postmaster of New York, and Robert Lenox, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce (National Archives Microfilm Publication 601, Letters Sent by the Postmaster General, 1789-1836, Roll 50).
2. The Statutes at Large and Treaties of the United States of America, from December 1, 1845, to March 3, 1851, Volume IX (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 201. Post Office stations and branches were recognized by Congress as early as May 18, 1842. On that day, Congress ordered that "Postmasters at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, and the other several cities of the Union," be required to submit financial receipts from any branch post office in their city [The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845, Volume V (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 487].
3. New-York Daily Times, June 2, 1853, 4.
4. Ibid. Private posts were largely abolished by an act of 1861, which essentially gave the Postmaster General, at his discretion, the exclusive right to deliver mail within cities.
5. The Boston Daily Globe, June 27, 1873, 5.
6. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1874, 21.
7. The New-York Times, November 9, 1895, 3. The Civil Service Act of 1883 brought employees of Post Offices with 50 or more employees under Civil Service rules, which specified that appointments be merit-based. In 1893 employees at all free-delivery Post Offices were brought into the Civil Service, increasing the number of Post Offices in the classified service from 53 to 601. Postmaster positions were not included in the classified service until 1908, when postmasters of some small offices became classified. Classified government employees received and kept their positions based on merit, not the "spoils" system of political patronage, whereby experienced postal employees were regularly replaced with political favorites. It was not unusual for Post Offices and Headquarters to lose their management every four years. The most authoritative positions, being the most lucrative, were especially prone to being filled by individuals who might have had little previous institutional knowledge.
8. The New-York Times, April 7, 1896, 3.
9. The Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1894, 24.
10. The Washington Post, January 22, 1896, 3.
11. The Ellicott City Post Office was reestablished on June 30, 1896.
12. See, for example, the 1909 Annual Report of the Postmaster General, page 111. On September 2, 1958, the limit was increased to 10 miles (Postal Bulletin, October 16, 1958, 4), and on December 21, 1963, it was increased to 20 miles (Postal Bulletin, January 30, 1964, 2).
13. The December 1901 United States Official Postal Guide listed the "East Richmond R.F.D. Station;" in 1902 it was called the "East Richmond Rural Station" (United States Official Postal Guide, vol. 28 and vol. 29).
14. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1901, 114.
15. The New-York Times, September 1, 1889, 9. As early as the 1860s there were receiving stations located in drug stores in some cities, where citizens could deposit mail for pick-up and sometimes buy stamps. (For example, see the list of drug store "receiving stations" in Edwards' Annual Director [sic] . . . in the City of St. Louis, for 1864 . . ., page 72.) By the 1880s there were also some stations in drug stores (see The Washington Post, August 31, 1882; January 13, 1883; and January 5, 1887), but it is unclear what services were provided or what the arrangement was between the Post Office Department and the business owners. Dennis H. Pack, in his article "Those Elusive Postal Sub-Stations" (La Posta, September 1999), discusses the possibility that a station established in a drug store in Washington, D.C., in 1882, and at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1884, operated on a contract basis. The New-York Times of September 1, 1889, noted that "Mr. Wanamaker can claim originality for the project of making a large number of drug stores branch offices."
16. United States Official Postal Guide, 1892, 413. In December 1892 the New York Post Office had 19 stations and 23 substations.
17. The 1879 Postal Laws and Regulations (page 432) defined "Branch Post-Office" as synonymous with "Station" and "Sub-Post-Office." "Substations" that provided carrier service were referenced in The New-York Times (December 10, 1880, 3), and Chicago Daily Tribune (September 1, 1889, 13). In 1890 a Post Office "branch station" opened in Washington, D.C. (The Washington Post, December 5, 1890, 6), and in 1894 the postmaster of New York provided detailed statistics on the numerous "branch stations" in his city (The New-York Times, January 17, 1894, 8). For further discussion of early nomenclature, see Dennis H. Pack's article "Those Elusive Postal Sub-Stations," Parts 1 and 2 (La Posta, September and November 1999).
18. Postal Bulletin, November 15, 1897.
19. Postal Laws and Regulations, 1913, 123-124.
20. The July 1966 Directory of Post Offices (page 5) references "contract units" and "postal units." "Contract postal unit" is referenced in a May 22, 1975, Los Angeles Times article, and "contract unit" is mentioned in the Postal Service's 1979 Postal Operations Manual. The Postal Service's Glossary of Postal Terms refers to "contract post office unit" in 1981 and "contract postal unit" beginning in 1988.
21. See The New-York Times, March 29, 1876, 1; Ibid., July 9, 1876, 2; and William J. Bomar, Postal Markings of United States Expositions, Second Edition (Tampa, FL: BJB Philatelics, 1996), 11-19.
22. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1898, 128.