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The Post Office in American Life

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Town Store and Post Office, artist, Daniel Celentano, ca. 1938. Smithsonian American Art Museum Town Store and Post Office, artist, Daniel Celentano, ca. 1938. Smithsonian American Art Museum

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 No federal agency was more closely tied to the daily lives of the American public than the USPOD. As one of the first government agencies, the USPOD connected states and territories, where only tenuous relationships existed, and helped to build a national culture by making information, communications, and consumer goods accessible through a federally subsidized mail system. When new towns incorporated following the Revolutionary War, post offices were established immediately and often acted as community gathering places. Even as the post office remained central to smaller towns, occasionally the actions and policies of the federal agency conflicted with local customs. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Sabbatarians began a crusade to keep post offices closed on Sundays, a practice that wouldn’t officially end until the 1910s. In the 1830s, when unsolicited abolitionist literature from New York was sent to South Carolinians, local officials challenged the federal authority of the USPOD to deliver materials that promoted overturning South Carolina’s laws and local policies. Then Postmaster General Amos Kendall allowed local postal authorities in Southern states to censor mails and to decide what was appropriate for their citizens.1 As the main agency that facilitated communications and commerce across long distances, it was mired in cultural and political debates among various interest groups and politicians with outcomes that carried significant repercussions.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Assessing the appropriateness of mail content and debating the breadth of authority held by USPOD continued into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Forced to comply with an 1873 law that barred the circulation of obscene literature and materials, the Postmaster General agreed to create an unpaid position for a special agent charged with authority to seize offensive literature and to arrest publishers, recipients, and circulators of such materials. Paid by a private organization, Anthony Comstock filled the role of Special Agent to the USPOD until he died in 1915. As a self-appointed cultural warrior, Comstock had been working for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice—a YMCA-affiliated committee—prior to his federal appointment bringing violators of state law to trial. The federal legislation, later known as the Comstock Act, broadly defined obscene materials to include not solely pornographic publications, but also reproductions of paintings containing nude figures, playing cards, contraception pamphlets, women’s health-related literature, and packages of contraceptives. During his tenure, Comstock confiscated and destroyed millions of print materials and goods, and prosecuted thousands of violators.2 Comstock zealously enforced a federal law of questionable constitutionality, while serving in a quasi-governmental role.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As Comstock scrutinized the subject of mailable matter, postmasters general sought ways to deliver consumer goods to remote areas of the country. Services introduced by the USPOD in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Rural Free Delivery (RFD) and Parcel Post, generated their own conflicts. Local businesses in small towns protested the influence of large merchants on postal policy, while residents appreciated access to affordable goods available in mail order catalogs. RFD and Parcel Post afforded many rural residents home mail delivery and gave large retailers the ability to send goods inexpensively to remote areas.3 The centrality of the post office to American daily life is evident in the ways it was pulled in many directions by legislators and citizen action. As the federal communications department, the post office connected residents with one another and with services, goods, and literature offered by organizations and businesses that relied on a stable delivery system. The post office provided a public service and excelled in moving mail. It also sat in the middle of conflicting interests as it transmitted information produced by many entities. Even postal policies were not strictly under the Department’s control.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Postal policy decisions varied with each presidential administration and with each Congress. From the 1820s through the 1960s, the Postmaster General was a cabinet-level political appointment. The Department’s budget, postal rates, and other postal-related activities were determined by a congressional committee. This meant, among other things, that policy interpretation varied by administration and that the postal service retained no control over postal rates. Rates, for second-class periodicals in particular, were contested in committee as periodicals expanded from newspapers, religious tracts, and abolitionist literature before the Civil War to include consumer catalogs, specialist literature, and magazines filled with advertising after the Civil War. Local businesses questioned whether the Department should subsidize nation-wide publications paid for by advertising, and Progressive politicians sought, unsuccessfully, to reel in postal budget deficits by raising rates on second-class postage. As U.S. geographical boundaries grew, transportation costs also rose, meaning that a first-class letter traveling five miles cost the same to mail as the same letter traveling 2,000 miles. The Department was forced to absorb these costs, as well as others–including, many transportation-related contracting frauds that eventually led to major civil service reform.4 Congress kept postage at reasonable rates on behalf of their constituents, but that prevented the Department from making decisions about their budgets that were fiscally necessary.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Knowing of the budgetary realities, postmasters general tried new ways to generate revenue. One attempt was printing and selling commemorative stamps. Under the leadership of merchant-turned-bureaucrat John Wanamaker, the USPOD first recognized philatelists as consumers and tapped into an established network of stamp collectors eager to buy stamps for their albums rather than exchanging them for postage delivery. At this time, consumption was becoming more closely associated with responsibilities of citizenship as constructed by newly-formed advertising agencies. Wanamaker wanted citizens to purchase the first set of American commemorative stamps that celebrated the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and America’s past.5 By linking stamp consumption to patriotism, Wanamaker hoped to attract future collectors/consumers through this set of stamps while also increasing public support for the Department.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The USPOD was not the only federal entity involved with philately. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the USPOD and the Smithsonian Institution established philatelic collections and mounted exhibitions that promoted the study of philately. Making collections of stamps available for the public not only encouraged collecting, but also demonstrated that the government approved of stamp collecting and provided the means for building collections.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The USPOD unequivocally demonstrated its support of philately when it established the Philatelic Agency in 1921, specifically to handle requests from collectors. This type of enthusiasm went unmatched, for example, by the Treasury Department, which occasionally produced commemorative coins and never offered the same support for coin collectors. The Philatelic Agency became the government’s commemorative stamp store that officially acknowledged collectors as consumers. Regular postage stamps bought at a local post office would be used to send a letter or package for services rendered, while collectors wrote or visited the Philatelic Agency to buy limited-issue commemorative stamps for saving. As the USPOD solidified its role as a producer of collectibles, it created an infrastructure to support the consumption of stamps. Leading by example, the USPOD encouraged Americans to buy and save stamps they crafted to celebrate a triumphalist vision of the American past and present. These stamps reached millions of people in the U.S. and around the world as the federal government interpreted and re-presented American history by promoting contemporary events.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The turn of the century marks a transition for the USPOD from an organization indifferent to collecting to one that becomes an active participant in collecting culture.


  1. 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  2. Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth Century America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003). 

  3. 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” The Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (September 1, 2000): 403–434; Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth Century America; Marshall Cushing, Story of Our Post Office: The Greatest Government Department in All Its Phases (Boston: A.M. Thayer, 1893), can be viewed at: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t3416w09k;view=1up;seq=7

  4. 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Wayne E. Fuller, “The South and the Rural Free Delivery of Mail,” The Journal of Southern History 25, no. 4 (November 1959): 499–521; Fuller, Morality and the Mail

  5. 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 John, Spreading the News; David M. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (University Of Chicago Press, 2006); Richard B Kielbowicz, “Postal Subsidies for the Press and the Business of Mass Culture, 1880-1920,” The Business History Review 64, no. 3, Service Industries (Autumn 1990): 451–488; Cameron Blevins, “Who Picked Up The Check?,” Historying, June 27, 2013, http://historying.org/2013/06/27/who-picked-up-the-check/ 

  6. 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). 

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Source: http://stampingamericanmemory.org/revisions/federal-participation-in-philately/us-post-office-department-in-american-life/