Winton M. Blount Symposium on Postal History
The United States government first issued postage stamps in 1847. For almost fifty years, private bank note companies printed these small, gummed, slips of paper. This changed in 1893, when the Post Office Department invited bids for its annual supply of over two billion postage stamps. Rather than accepting the bid of an established bank note printer, the Post Office Department accepted a legally and financially dubious bid from a printing establishment with almost no experience in postage stamp production and none of the rare but requisite gumming machines—the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP).
After winning the contract, the BEP had only a few months to assemble the necessary staff and machines and to start producing stamps. What if the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had failed to deliver the needed stamps? What would have happened to the postal system, to everyday communication, to the nation’s business? Why did the Post Office Department take such a risk? Others have suggested that the Post Office Department’s decision was a purely economic one. The reported cost savings were significant. However, were these figures accurate? Were there not less risky ways of saving money?
This paper contends that the rationale behind the Post Office Department’s decision had less to do with the financial bottom line and more to do with politics and ideology. Based on sources from the archives of the United States Postal Service and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (as well as other sources), it argues that the start of postage stamp production by the government was a ham-handed effort by the Cleveland administration to institute progressive reforms in the federal government. Putting the BEP in charge of stamp production was seen as the culmination of a “correct public policy” in which the government produced all government security documents. This policy, it was held, would result in greater government efficiency and further separate big business and government. Exactly the opposite view is held today as is witnessed by the recent re-privatization of postage stamp production.
In the history of the United States, world’s fairs, expositions, and exhibitions have been widely popular pageants, capturing the imagination of the nation. Not surprisingly, the Post Office Department often used these events as subjects for illustration and celebration. The images used on stamps over the decades demonstrate a correlation between a shift in style and popular culture.
Early images depicting expositions on postage stamps reflected the historical reasons for the particular exposition. For example, a portrait of William H. Seward appeared on the stamp devoted to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909) and the Liberty Bell was used for the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia (1926). In the early 1930s, images assumed a new tenor. Chicago’s 1933-1934 Century of Progress stamp featured a zeppelin, the California Pacific Exposition (1935-1936) stamp offered a view of San Diego, and the stamp for the New York World’s Fair (1939) portrayed the monumental Trylon and Perisphere.
Using original design materials such as drawings, photographs, artwork, and material from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing archives, this paper argues that this change in images resulted from the emergence of modernism in popular culture. During the 1930s, popular views shifted from the traditional to the modern, and this shift was reflected in exposition stamps. Rather than images that commemorated the past, the new images celebrated the future, freedom from the past, and a sense of possibility. Hence, later exposition stamps featured new technology, art deco buildings, and sweeping vistas.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, “modernization” swept the country, permeating business, industry, and government. Efficiency experts coming out of the scientific management movement and typified by a belief in improvement through new technology led the campaign. The wave of modernization reached deep into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), affecting postage stamp production. Management was reorganized, jobs were cut, and new machinery and processes were adopted.
Such dramatic changes brought significant challenges to BEP personnel. The pressure to accomplish these goals was enormous. To meet the goals of modernization, nearly every component of production was altered. Faster drying inks, sheet layouts, paper, and methodologies were researched, tested, tried, and retried. While these innovations improved the agency’s ability to provide cost savings and better postage stamps, they displaced numerous Bureau employees. Some lost their jobs; others were forced into lower-paying positions.
Based upon internal documents, this paper examines the process of modernization within the BEP, specifically in the area of postage stamp production. It finds that success resulted from technological innovations that were sometimes inspired by employees. However, change did not go unchallenged. Employees and unions resisted dramatic change and the loss of jobs and status. In response, BEP management did its best to lessen the impact of modernization by moderating the speed at which change occurred. In sum, modernization brought both technical and personnel challenges that were successfully overcome, much to the advantage of postage stamp production.
In 1873 nurseryman and horticultural editor Thomas Meehan expressed a sentiment that had simmered in the horticultural and agricultural press for over a decade. “There are few matters,” Mr. Meehan declared, “more worthy of the attention of horticulturists than this one of postage, and we feel we need no apology for the space we devote to it” (“Interpretations of the Postal Law,” The Gardener’s Monthly, 15, no. 1, January 1873). Spurred by domestic advisors, a burgeoning agricultural and horticultural press, the increasing availability of colorful new horticultural varieties, and a rapidly expanding nursery and seed industry, Americans, in the middle decades of the nineteenth-century, developed an unprecedented interest in planting trees and flowers. While would-be gardeners often obtained some horticultural products locally, America’s nursery and seed industries, from their inception, depended on marketing goods to distant customers and on a distribution system that could deliver delicate plant materials efficiently and economically. Horticultural professionals, as Mr. Meehan pointed out, had a vested interest in the post office, in what materials it accepted as “mailable,” and in the cost of delivering increasingly voluminous catalogs, seed packets, and other nursery products.
“Petunias by Post” explores the role of the post office in America’s mid-nineteenth century horticultural boom. The study investigates problems in plant transport, changes in postal policy that accommodated the needs of the horticultural trade, and the conflict that emerged as horticulturalists protested congressional franking privileges. The paper also considers how the escalating demand for trees and flowers helped shape postal practice and generate a new source of revenue for the post office. America’s nurserymen and seed dealers, in their efforts to sell plants, were among the first to encourage customers to use the postal service for commercial purposes. The opportunity to receive “petunias by post” had real significance for these plant enthusiasts because it offered access to a sophisticated marketplace of horticultural ideas and wares no matter how remote their farm or village home.
Ryan K. Anderson
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote in his decision on Smith v. Hitchcock (1912), “We may say . . . a printed publication is a book when its contents are complete . . . deal with a single subject, betray no need of continuation, and, perhaps, have an appreciable size. . . . From this point of view, Tip Top Weekly and Work and Win are books.” (Smith v. Hitchcock, 226 U.S. 53, 1912) The Supreme Court justice made this statement before addressing the primary issue at hand—whether or not Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock gave Street and Smith Publishing a proper hearing before deciding that its popular juvenile weekly serial, Tip Top Weekly, belonged in the third, rather than second, class. On the way to that verdict, by defining this dime novel as a book and differentiating it from a periodical, he pushed the last of the great “cheap publishers” towards the pulp magazine formats of the mid-twentieth century. My paper explores the interconnected nature of postal regulation, the business of commercial entertainment, and changes in popular culture.
Holmes’s decision crippled Street and Smith’s juvenile weekly department. In the years between the Postal Law of 1879 and Smith v. Hitchcock, Street and Smith (and other such publishers) prospered because Congress never defined the character of books versus periodicals when debates about postal regulations arose. As far as the House was concerned, they met the second-class guidelines and could use the postal service in conjunction with the American News Company as the cornerstone of their batch production system. Rather than blanketing the nation with mass-produced literature, Street and Smith preferred to measure audience taste and then to produce just enough issues to meet that demand. This effort depended on maintaining an open line of communication that tied readers, authors, editors, and circulation managers together in a debate informing not only Tip Top Weekly’s content but also the decision of which stories to later gather together and reprint as paperback and cloth-bound novels at a dramatic markup. The postmaster general, who possessed the freedom to decide independently whether individual titles fit their classifications in 1901, moved the title to third class in 1908 and thus began the chain of events that culminated in Smith v. Hitchcock. When Holmes noted that the common understanding of a periodical’s character equated with “magazine,” he decided that Tip Top Weekly was a book, thus affirming the postmaster general’s initial decision and invalidating Street and Smith’s claim regarding the hearing. As a result, Street and Smith’s communication system grew too expensive, which forced it to abandon weeklies and embrace pulp magazines.
My paper illuminates postal reform’s influence on American popular culture. In the past, historians have been quick to blame the rise of the movie industry and the advent of pulp fiction for the dime novel’s decline without explaining how this occurred. Assuming that films replaced reading overlooks both the fact that cheap reading did not disappear and the close relationship between dime novels and pulp fiction. This work remedies this oversight by showing that Street and Smith abandoned dime novels not because they grew unpopular but because of production impossibilities. As a result, my work promises to provide a greater understanding of the historical influences shaping changes in American culture.
Sheila A. Brennan
Today the U.S. Postal Service actively promotes philately, but it did not pay close attention to stamp collectors until the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. In the late nineteenth century, American stamp collectors began to act in public ways, typical with the Progressive era, by incorporating scientific methods and language into their pursuit, organizing formal associations, publishing journals, and developing a relationship with the federal government. Promoting philately occurred as the professionalization movement began uniting like-minded individuals such as lawyers, doctors, and social workers into associations to promote their expertise and ability to solve problems. Evidence from philatelic society journals, specialized literature, and the popular press demonstrates how philatelists became experts in the “colored bits of paper” they collected, traded, or purchased.
Like many professionals, philatelists developed a relationship with the federal government to promote their activities. Functioning independently from the producers of their favorite collectible, philatelic associations rarely referenced the U.S. Post Office Department. Conversely, the Post Office Department left few records acknowledging the existence of collectors. This all changed as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair approached. Under the direction of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, the Post Office Department sponsored an exhibition in the government building and collaborated with the American Philatelic Association to design a stamp exhibit. And for the first time since the Department began issuing postage stamps in 1847, it commissioned a set of stamps meant to be collected.
Known more as a “department store merchant” than Washington bureaucrat, Wanamaker brought his business acumen and understanding of customer relations to the Department. He acknowledged the growing legions of stamp collectors and proposed the commemorative Columbian stamps as a way to generate revenue for the government. At the end of the nineteenth century the government not only promoted consuming in the private sector but encouraged purchasing federal collectibles as well. Postmaster General reports, philatelic journals, and the popular press trace the development of this relationship. Like other Americans at that time, philatelists grew accustomed to greater government involvement in their leisure activities. After the 1893 Exposition, philatelists and the postal service were forever linked.
Gwynne K. Langley
During the first half of the 43rd Congress’s second session, between December 1873 and March 1874, several significant debates regarding postal regulations took place which dealt directly with the refinement of the Post Office Department’s mandate. These debates addressed questions of the franking privilege, regulation of mail classes, and the establishment of new postal routes in the reconstructed South and the expanding West. The debates served as an attempt to refine legislation that had been passed in the previous congressional session. Topics included the construction of the Post Office Department’s expanded mandate, the discretion of the postmaster general concerning policy and finance questions, and how Congress would disseminate news now that the franking privilege was abolished.
As one of the largest branches of the civil service, the Post Office Department was acknowledged to be the primary source of information transmission to citizens, and this role was never seriously questioned during the period. There were, however, many questions raised during the 1873-1874 debates as to what constituted information that the Department was obliged to carry. These debates are significant in how they answer and resolve the questions left by the 1873 reforms, and more broadly, they aid in our understanding of the nature of information that was considered most worthy of transmission by the federal government. The nature of information and the mail classes themselves clearly underwent a process of redefinition as Congress tried to reform and systematize an increasingly large and costly part of the civil service.
In this paper, I will use Geoffrey Nunberg’s definition of information as a very specific type of knowledge that relates to a delimited set of topics. It is a type of news or intelligence, designed for transmission to a wide range of people and not specific to any one individual or group (Geoffrey Nunberg, “Farewell to the Information Age,” The Future of the Book, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). This corresponds with the understanding of information that was expressed in the 1874 debates. There, information was a specific category of knowledge. It was time-dependent—news and facts found in newspapers and correspondence. The construction of the term was crucial to the way in which these debates shaped and reformed postal policy. As they refined the definition of the role and mandate of the Post Office Department and what should be carried in each mail class, the 43rd Congress also refined this specific category of knowledge.
I will demonstrate that the debates over the refinement of the new postal laws had a great deal to do with defining this category. Through their definition of information, they reconstructed the Post Office Department’s mandate. While earlier debates focused on general reform of the civil service, the actions of the 43rd Congress were critical to shaping our understanding of information and the role the Post Office Department played in its transmission.
Julie M. Boddy
Multiple improvements in railway mail service during the early years of the twentieth century included cleaner and safer jobs for railway postal clerks. Many who had worked through the improvement process thereupon found their newly-enhanced positions threatened. For Black postal clerks the situation was especially serious, and they began facing dismissals as the Wilson administration implemented segregation policies in the federal service. Further, no employee organizations admitted Black railway postal clerks at the time. Consequently, thirty-six clerks from thirteen states formed the National Alliance of Postal Employees at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, in 1913. They shored-up their new organization with a multi-faceted mutual aid program drawn from long-standing experience in the Black community. By applying self-organization to their work in this way, the railway postal clerks expanded the improvements in railway mail service with newly-formalized dimensions of community agency.
This paper explores the improvements in railway mail clerking through an approach based on interviews with Alliance staff at their national headquarters and documentation of the National Alliance of Postal Employees that includes the Alliance journal, convention minutes and position papers, and an official history and film.
This paper discusses the history of the increase in the number of post offices throughout the nineteenth century and the reasons for that increase. It explains that the nation had a commitment to easy access to the mails and that the state of roads at the time was so poor that farmers could not travel great distances to receive and send their mail. Thus, the average distance of the population from post offices continually declined during the period. Approximately 60 percent of the population lived on farms. The advent of Rural Free Delivery (RFD), which began as an experiment in 1896, eliminated the need for close proximity to post offices. In fact, RFD caused the Post Office Department to reverse gears. The number of post offices peaked in 1901 and has declined in virtually every year since. The disproportionate numbers of small rural post offices that remain are a legacy of the nineteenth century.
Today there is quite a debate concerning small rural post offices. Some people believe they are very important—even vital—to the fabric of the communities that they serve. On the other hand, the Postal Service, the Postal Rate Commission, and many large mailers believe that most small rural offices are not necessary to maintain adequate postal services to these communities. Rural carriers provide virtually every service provided at a post office. Thus, it is maintained that post offices in these communities can supplement rural carrier service. The debate over small rural post offices is part of the larger debate over whether the Postal Service is a business or a service.
Supporters of maintaining small rural offices claim that they are protected by the universal service obligation of the Postal Service; opponents cite the need for efficiency and advocate closing them. This paper develops these arguments and the role Congress and the Postal Rate Commission have played since reorganization. It provides cost data on small offices and puts these costs in the context of the total postal budget.
If, today, the U.S. Postal Service were begun de novo, the distribution of post offices would look quite different than it does now and the service would be much more market-driven. The distribution of retail pharmacies in the U.S. is the result of market forces. This paper compares the current distribution of post offices with the distribution of retail pharmacies to illustrate the differences. It also shows how regional differences in population growth have changed the number of persons per post office on a regional basis.
Finally, this paper presents some international comparisons because, in most developed countries, small rural post offices are a problem for postal administrations as they attempt to be more business-oriented.
Washington, D.C., had a population of 3,000 when it became the seat of government in 1800. As described by Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin in 1801, “Our local situation is far from being pleasant or even convenient. Around the Capitol are seven or eight boarding houses, one tailor, one shoemaker, one printer, a washing woman, a grocery shop, a pamphlets and stationery shop, a small goods shop, and an oyster house. This makes the whole of the Federal City as connected with the Capitol.”
Hotels were few, and they served an important purpose for visitors and for the government officials and others calling the nation’s capital “home.” During the first half of the nineteenth century, hotels served an important postal service role. Some served as actual post offices or post office stations; others acted as forwarding agents. Names such as the City Hotel (later the Willard Hotel), Gadsby’s New Hotel, Thomas’s Irving Hotel, The National, the Ebbitt House, and Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel were all familiar landmarks.
During and after the Civil War, as the population and stature of the national capital grew, hotels were at the forefront of social activity, and they were among the first businesses to use the mails as an advertising medium. The presentation will focus on Washington, D.C., to show how nineteenth-century hotels provided an important social, economic, and postal service to the community.
Murray A. Abramson
The United States and some European countries (e.g., Great Britain, France, and Germany) rapidly developed their domestic airmail service during the 1920s. This had important economic consequences, including the eventual creation of international airmail service. While the United States developed air routes to South America, Great Britain and France developed air services to European destinations. Eventually, concern for expediting the link with distant parts of the European empires triggered Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands to create air routes towards Africa, Asia, and Australia. Because they fulfilled multiple needs, none of these air routes was exclusively for airmail. However, in all these cases airmail played an important economic role.
Airmail to Asia, Africa, and Australia that originated in the United States was sent through a European hub airport (e.g., London, Paris, Marseilles, Brussels, or Amsterdam). Postal rates from these hubs to the final destination underwent substantial revisions over the years. The varied rates, routes, and regulations from the 1920s until the late 1930s were reminiscent of the pre-Universal Postal Union era of transatlantic steamship mail (1840-1875).
My presentation demonstrates many postal rates, routes, and conventions through the illustration of United States commercial airmail covers to Asia, Africa, and Australia. I will also discuss some of the economic consequences that airmail service had for the sender, recipient, and each of their respective countries.
Both theorists of electronic media and of the broadcasting industry have long championed the space-binding properties of radio and television broadcasting technologies. Media theorists argue that simultaneous connection defines the experience of broadcasting technology. Similarly, 1920s and 1930s radio networks used live interconnection to contend that they were technologically superior, possessed higher program quality, and fulfilled listener aesthetic preferences, thereby protecting their position as program distributors. Yet, during this same period, radio transcription companies challenged these rhetorical claims by reworking conceptions of “liveness” to stress production rather than distribution and by redefining the radio “network” to include connection via postal routes, thus providing stations with alternative sources of programming via the mail. In so doing, their business practices expanded the definitions of radio and the postal service as communication technologies.
This paper tells the story of a duality of network interconnection. I have used a methodology grounded in the social history of technology and critical media theory and based upon evidence drawn from business archives, trade publications, and individual radio station papers. This history of radio’s “postal networks” challenges claims made about essential and ontological qualities of mass media in favor of a conception that stresses the ways that radio is a highly contingent and complex technological system with many component parts. This paper’s exploration of the role of the postal service in that system therefore not only revises existing narratives of broadcasting history that privilege live, national networks, but also expands the scope of postal history conception of network communication to include radio.
We know much more about the postal history of the early Republic than of the American Revolution and appreciate the magnificent institutional growth of the postal system in the young United States, far beyond its ambition and reach when in the control of the imperial British government. However, we have bypassed the intensity of revolution and war for the accretion of nation-building, and yet revolution and war brought their own dilemmas and transformations in the arena of communications—and at the intersection between postal history more narrowly and early American history more broadly. Hence, I investigate the processes of revolution-waging and war-making from two perspectives—the broadly institutional and the closely personal.
From an institutional perspective, there are crucial comparisons to be examined: the imperial English versus the revolutionary American, for instance, and the postmaster versus the post rider. Not only middling-sort postmasters but lower-sort post riders were confronted with the abrupt politicization of the imperial postal system. Long ideologically associated with the conduct of business in the Atlantic world, the postal system came to stand for fraught political choosing of sides in the politically turbulent 1760s and 1770s and then for arduous military organizing in the war-filled 1770s and 1780s. The necessity of choosing sides and the task of military organizing impinged not only on political institutions and high officials but also on local communities and ordinary people. Middling-sort postmasters and lower-sort post riders faced intense dilemmas in their communities and in their lives, and they were compelled to enact either revolution or loyalism on the ground. Postal history, in other words, lets us both revisit the American Revolution we think we know and to see another American Revolution we don’t know nearly enough about.
When we situate the history of the postal system within a history of interpersonal communications, this is even truer from a personal perspective. For instance, so important was the writing of letters to military logistics that George Washington was assigned a mobile post office that followed him wherever he went. Letters were laden with political and military importance, but for splintered families, whether rebel or loyalist, letters were given an elemental new emotional significance. Actual battlefronts may have stood at a certain distance, but letters were omnipresent throughout military and civilian society—unceasingly written, carried, anticipated, read, shared, discussed, demanded, pressed to lips and bosoms. This history, too, enables us to revisit the American Revolution we think we know and to see another American Revolution—beyond institutions and policies to confronting choices and the enactment of allegiances on the ground, in local communities, and in family lives.
Steven R. Boyd
Societies venerate certain people and events of the past and present. Governments influence the choice of who should be honored (revered) through a variety of official mechanisms, among them postage stamps, coins and currency, architecture, and place names. During the Civil War, private sector printers throughout the North engaged in the development of new icons—cultural heroes—that complemented and expanded the galaxy of heroes officially declared.
Civil War-era Patriotic covers expanded the corpus of national icons well beyond the traditional galaxy of heroes and gods and goddesses. Three examples illustrate the point:
Civil War Patriotic covers honored ordinary middle-class individuals, both civilian and military. Among the former is a cover of two men seated at a table, drinking beer. The slogan below the image: “One Flag, One Country, One Constitution, Zwei lager.” The men appear as ordinary civilians indistinguishable from their peers. The use of the German “Zwei” suggests a broadening of popular culture to include ethnic minorities as an integral part of the American Republic as the remainder of the verse is in English.
Military theme covers also commemorate ordinary citizen soldiers. Often these covers, including those by Charles Magnus, the greatest of the Patriotic cover publishers, emphasize small groups of men in camp, on guard duty, or in the field. These covers venerate not the generals or other commanders (although those covers also exit) but the ordinary men who sacrificed for the Union cause.
This "democratizing" of American popular icons contributed to the development of a more explicit democratic nationalism. Numerous patriotic covers include an image of the Union flag. In a way rarely seen before the war, mottoes and verses that accompany these flags emphasize that the flag symbolized the “Vox Populi,” the right of the people to rule. Likewise, Union covers critical of the South stress a common Union theme: hang the leaders (who have misled the citizens of the South) and pardon the people.
Finally, these Patriotic covers contributed to the growth of a more homogeneous popular culture. The portrayal of Uncle Sam, who became a widespread symbol of the nation, became more uniform. So too did portrayals of more familiar yet initially dissimilar figures like President Lincoln and General McClellan.
The distribution of tens of thousands of Union Patriotic Covers through the postal system materially increased the interconnectedness of the nation and enhanced the homogeneity of popular culture, which had profound implications for society in the post-war era.
John Kevin Doyle
In The Congress Book 2001 and 2003, published by the American Philatelic Congress, the author and colleagues have provided illustrated censuses of two different types of postal material used in East Africa during World War I. I will use the information in these censuses to examine the operation of the German East African postal system during WWI and international mail routing and censorship in the 1916-1918 period.
The first census was of used copies of the GEA 1 Rupie watermarked stamp. This stamp was printed in Berlin in late 1915, after the Allied blockade of the GEA coast had all but eliminated communications between Germany and GEA. The stamp, along with other emergency war supplies (ammunition, ‘16’ year slugs for cancellers, etc.), was brought to GEA on a blockade breaker that arrived in mid-March 1916. The stamp was sold to philatelists in Berlin during and after the war, and for some years philatelists believed “used” copies of this stamp were fakes. By 1927 Heinrich Brönnle and Albert Friedemann reported genuinely used copies. There are forty-five used examples of the stamp reported. I will examine when and where GEA 1 Rupie watermarked stamps were cancelled and use this to discuss communication within GEA during the period June-September 1916. We will see that almost all of these stamps were used along the Mittellandbahn—the central (East-West) railway in GEA. I will conclude that, despite the presence of British, Indian, South African, Nigerian, and Belgian armies in GEA at the time, the railway was still in use in this period, and it was a principal communications channel.
The second census is of covers bearing stamps of Kionga. Kionga was a small triangle of land south of the Rovuma River and north of the Minengani River. Diplomatic agreements between the French, British, Germans, and Portuguese in June and December 1886 disagreed on the possession of this area. The Germans acknowledged that the area had been relinquished to “Portuguese influence,” but they claimed continued “special interest” in the area. The Portuguese occupied the area in 1887. Five years later, the Germans seized the area back from Portugal. After many more years of “discussions,” the British pressured Germany and Portugal to divide the area, with the northern half to Germany and the southern to Portugal, and this was the position when WWI began. Portugal entered the war on March 9, 1916, and occupied the Kionga triangle on April 10. Seven weeks later, on May 29, 1916, it issued a set of four stamps overprinted ‘KIONGA’ for use in their new territory.
There are fifty covers and cards reported in the second census, of which at least twenty-five went through the mails. I will examine these covers, their cancels and postal markings, and their censor markings, and use this to draw conclusions about international mail routing and censorship in the period from June 1916 to June 1918. I will show that the routing and censorship of such mail changed from day to day: covers to similar or identical destinations were routed differently over periods of as short as a week.
The number of postal systems that existed side-by-side for decades—indeed, for centuries—represents the zenith of confusion and outright chaos in pre-Wilhelmine Germany. This proliferation of competing postal services can be explained in part by the desire of the small German states to retain autonomous structures at all costs and by the natural drive of the larger states to maintain institutions capable of exerting political influence and/or pressure. The main reason for this tenacious hanging-on to antiquated services, however, had economic roots. The revenue generated played a major role in fiscal policy. Ironically, what was a catastrophe from a macroeconomic point of view proved to be a lucrative source of revenue on the microeconomic level. Simply put, they were moneymakers.
This very uncharacteristic Teutonic disorder was not terminated until the German Empire was established in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War. Heinrich von Stephan, the first imperial post minister in the German Empire, played the key role in the establishment of the first national post office in Germany. The driving force of his personality, his unerring belief in the necessity of such a national postal system for the good of the country, his steadfastness in pursuing this goal, and his authoritative style of negotiation eventually overcame the numerous forms of resistance—administrative, financial, and psychological—on the part of the newly incorporated German states that enabled Germany’s first national post office to be founded in the first place.
My paper offers a cursory view of the chaotic, expensive, and time-consuming situation of postal services in Germany prior to 1871. I will further explore the person of Heinrich von Stephan, his many achievements—he was the first to introduce the modern post card—and the major role he played in overcoming the numerous obstacles encountered. More than just the creation of a system of unified, nationwide mail delivery, his feat represented an important contribution toward furthering the internal unification of the new German Empire.
Daniel A. Piazza
On February 17, 1692, letters patent from King William III and Queen Mary II of England granted to Thomas Neale a twenty-one-year postal monopoly in the American provinces. Neale, a Whig member of Parliament and Master of the Royal Mint, chose the Scottish-born Andrew Hamilton, governor general of East and West Jersey, as his agent in the enterprise. The “Parliamentary Post” that Hamilton created was the first successful attempt at organizing all of early America’s written communications—inter- and intra-colonial, domestic and foreign—into a coherent postal system. Within five years a viable post road had been blazed between New Hampshire and Virginia and general post offices were established at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Both academic and postal historians have extensively studied the “Parliamentary Post.” Its routes, rates, and revenues are well known and established. Little attempt has been made, however, to place it in a wider context or to answer questions of historical causation. Why did this postal project succeed in uniting England’s American provinces, where earlier attempts had failed or never materialized? The answer is not economic: Neale’s operation never turned a profit during his lifetime, and, in fact, he reported a loss of over ₤2350 in the four years ending May 1697!
This paper will shed new light on the origins of the “Parliamentary Post” by situating it in a broader historical context. Neale’s application for a postal monopoly was made to the Crown during King William’s War (1689-1697), the first of the four great imperial struggles between England and France for control of the North American continent. War increased the need for communication, both among provincial governments and with imperial officials in England. It was for this reason that many of England’s North American provinces, normally jealous of their own prerogatives and revenue, decided to come to terms with Hamilton.
The “Parliamentary Post” is described as an important catalyst in the Anglicization of the provinces at the turn of the eighteenth century, along with the establishment of the Church of England, the introduction of paper money and deficit spending, and increased attempts at inter-colonial cooperation for defense.
Robert G. Cullen
This paper focuses on rural free delivery (RFD) in the United States during the 1890s and how one person, who was not even a postal employee, became the pivotal advocate for that initiative. That person was a nationally acclaimed military figure, the general who had led the Union Army’s tenacious defense of McPherson Farm at the Battle of Gettysburg about three decades earlier. He was also an accomplished civil and mechanical engineer, a visionary who saw more clearly than most the unbridled possibilities of his nation’s infrastructure. He was General Roy Stone, described in a New York Times article published in 1892 as someone “never happier than when working at large and difficult problems.”
Stone found the perfect channel for his considerable energies and determination in the quest to promote both new and improved roads throughout the United States. He vigorously pursued that mission, first as secretary for the National League of Good Roads and then (from 1893 to 1899) Special Agent and Engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s newly authorized Office of Road Inquiry ( ORI). As explained by historian Philip P. Mason, “ Stone believed that the federal government should actively participate in road building, just as it had participated in the development of railroads, canals, and harbors.”
In seeking to make his road-building goal a reality rather than just an ideal, Stone was alert to any and all potential partnerships beyond the USDA and his own office’s decidedly limited budget and resources. That is why he readily embraced the introduction of RFD—first launched on an experimental basis in 1896—and labored tirelessly with the U.S. Post Office Department to implement that program. Stone’s proposed aim was to work together in creating accessible rural roads in order to facilitate widespread mail delivery in those areas.
The joint effort between the agencies was ultimately successful, but it also proved at times to be an uneasy alliance. An example of those tensions surfaced in 1897 when Stone and his ORI staff proposed a plan that would have made mail carriers direct participants in roads maintenance. The Post Office Department rejected that plan, and it was not until 1906, the year after Stone’s death, that the agency formally agreed “to promote the efficiency of the rural delivery service and at the same time render effective aid in the improvement of roads.”
My paper explores how Stone’s leadership and persistence brought about such an agreement and thereby far-reaching socio-cultural changes to the U.S. postal delivery system and the larger national landscape. I also illustrate that the advent of RFD is more than just an important but mostly overlooked chapter in U.S. history. It also underscores a key trend in the American experience: the relentless if often resisted push away from elitism (privileges and services for a few) and towards equity (making those same privileges and services available to an even larger segment of the population).
The data reported by the postal system itself is critical to postal history research. For United States postal historians, The Official Register of the United States provides a wide bridge of data for the intermingling of professionals and amateurs. The sheer mass and technicality of the data no longer need be a stumbling block. This panel will pave the way.
The Official Register, one of the best consolidated compilations of postal histories spanning 1816 to the present, is a biennial publication that serves as directory to post offices, postmasters, mail contractors, employees of the Post Office Department and of the Postal Service, departmental organizational changes, and employees of the auditor’s office of the Treasury Department and printers for the Post Office Department. I will show examples of The OfficialRegister and provide the audience with a handout that reprints the essential bibliographic information supplied by Arthur Hecht, chairman of the APS Postal History Information Committee, in a 1961 article in the American Philatelist.
“Providing Access” is a description of my research project to convert the data contained in The Official Register into a soft copy text format that can be loaded into a database, thus making it easily accessible to researchers for the first time. The work covers The Official Register from 1816 to 1871 and encompasses approximately 9,500 pages.
Robert Dalton Harris
The Official Register data show both the design and the performance of the United States Post Office Department as a network. The Official Register data is used in conjunction with postal route information to explore the relationship between mail service and postal revenue for geographic and economic patterns in New York State, 1837-40.
Postmaster compensation data is analyzed from The Official Register in conjunction with census data for locations in New Hampshire to show that such data can be used with some accuracy as a measure both for postal and economic activity.
This paper outlines what the “gold mine” of The Official Register data could mean to economists, political scientists, and sociologists who need detailed micro-level data on income and growth rates over time to study cycles, long and short run trends, differences between urban and rural areas, etc. Data from The Official Register can show the identity of leading citizens and whether they remained in office for a short or long time, whether business cycles are felt more intensely in the city or the country, and what happened to local economic vigor as New Englanders moved west.