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In 2014, more than 80 billion catalogs and direct mail pieces were delivered by the Postal Service.

Source: 2014 USPS Annual Report

Mail carrier delivering a package to a letter store.
Commercial package delivery
Commercial package delivery

Mail and Marketing

Businesses and others have learned how to use mail efficiently and effectively. Whether the desired customer response is higher sales or donations, mailers have learned how to be effective combining mail with other realms of advertising, including the Internet. When armed with better information, customers led by catalogs or direct mail to stores and websites often buy more. Customers know that information is key to finding the best deal, and mail can help provide that information directly to their door.

From 20% off coupons to local stores to announcements of new stores opening nearby, mail can bring customers and businesses together. Catalogs, on the other hand, offer the opportunity for customers to lounge and “window” shop at their leisure. Colorful and enticing products on a catalog page can transform into a package being delivered to a customer’s doorstep. Businesses have discovered that properly designed and executed direct mail campaigns can be a cost-effective way to gain new customers and generate sales. They spend more than $18O billion on advertising each year. Modern catalogs and direct mail are essential parts of the giant sales machine that is the U.S. economy.

Early American Catalog Sales

Catalogs are as old as the country. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used them to order wine, furniture, seeds, and other goods from Europe. And, before he served as postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin published a book catalog with nearly 600 titles and offered the first recorded guarantee of "customer satisfaction." But catalogs, as letters, were too often the provenance of the wealthy in colonial America. Most Americans lived off of what they produced themselves, supplemented by purchases or trades made in local towns or from traveling jobbers.

In 1845 Tiffany & Co. produced their “Blue Book” catalog (still published today). Items were delivered by private express carriers. In 1872 Montgomery Ward mailed his one-page catalog to rural shoppers, offering a money back guarantee if the customer was not satisfied. Until 1879 when mail was divided into four classes, Ward’s customers used private express carriers. After that year, people could use the Post Office’s new “catch-all” category of fourth class mail for items weighing less than four pounds. But at 16-cents per pound, the rate could be prohibitive and many continued to use private carriers.

Gift-wrapped packages, a Priority Mail box, and a Teddy bear stacked up.
Gifts
Gifts

Direct to the Home

In 1896 the Post Office began to experiment with Rural Free Delivery (RFD) – bringing mail directly to farmers and other rural Americans. Prior to RFD, rural Americans had to travel to the nearest town to send or receive mail. It was an immediate hit and by 1904 became an official service of the Post Office Department. While those who received the new service celebrated it, they also began to wonder, “Why can’t we get more items through the mails?” From the 1880s to 1912, Americans debated this issue. Many people and groups supported such a service, but small businesses feared that the proposed parcel post would ruin them financially. One group that had already fought for RFD, the National Grange, joined this next fight, petitioning their members of Congress to work for passage of parcel post legislation.

Six private delivery companies carried most of the nation's packages. Each company controlled a different area of the country, with little competition between them. None of these companies wanted government competition. They fought the proposed service, knowing they would lose money if people could send packages through the mail at lower cost. By 1911 the private express companies had lost their congressional allies and parcel post legislation finally reached the House and Senate floor. Parcel Post was instituted on January 1, 1913 and the floodgates were opened.

The first package to be delivered was 11 pounds of apples sent to New Jersey governor (and President-Elect) Woodrow Wilson. The Woodrow Wilson Club of Princeton deposited the apples at a local post office at precisely 12:01 a.m.  By prearrangement, David Gransom, the carrier assigned to normally deliver the governor’s mail, received the parcel “before the cancelling ink was dry” and set off “driving furiously down the muddy street for the president elect’s home.” He delivered the apples to the waiting Wilson at 12:04 a.m. 

While most post offices didn’t open at midnight to receive parcels on that first day of service, a number opened during New Year’s Day for a couple of hours. These first hours of the service proved irresistible to mailers across the country. A line 100-people long convinced Minneapolis’s postmaster William D. Hale to open the city’s post office on New Year’s Day. In just the ninety minutes from 9:30-11am that the postmaster had the parcel post window open, 100 packages were accepted. The second day of service was just as frenzied in most areas. In New York City, postmaster Morgan reported that over 10,000 packages were mailed in Manhattan and the Bronx on January 2nd. During that day, 1,187 parcel post packages were delivered in those two boroughs. However they wrapped their packages, Americans loved the service, mailing 300 million parcels in the first six months of the service. Sears, Roebuck and Company handled five times as many orders in 1913 as they had the year before. By 1918 they had doubled their revenues.

Apples are still popular mail order items, but are just a small part of this now mammoth and diverse industry. The service’s popularity continued to grow, and packages of many shapes and sizes joined into the mail stream year after year, with especially heavy numbers arriving in the weeks before Christmas. In Brooklyn, New York, the local armory was pressed into service to help hold the overflow of holiday packages prior to Christmas in 1924. The size and weight of packages continued to grow, allowing people to send even more items through the system. Today’s parcels can weigh up to 70 pounds, with a combined length and girth of 130 inches, and we’re sending many, many more of them. Even though the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have a monopoly on parcels, post offices and mail centers across the country are kept busy with a steady stream of packages day and night. The number of packages carried by the Postal Service continues to grow dramatically as more consumers shop online. The Internet is impressive, but it hasn’t yet developed a way to bring those goods to our doorsteps.