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Joseph Briggs and the Free City Delivery

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Joseph Briggs
Illustration of Joseph Briggs

Free City Delivery Service began during the Civil War in Cleveland, Ohio. Joseph Briggs, a postal employee, convinced postal officials to deliver letters to the city's citizens for free. Encouraged by the results, officials expanded the service to other cities.

When Free City Delivery Service began on July 1, 1863, it was limited to 49 Northern offices, which used 450 letter carriers. By 1869 revenues from Free City Delivery were over ten times its cost, and the new system provided employment for Civil War veterans as letter carriers.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly 10,000 letter carriers were employed in over 400 cities to bring mail directly to people's homes. The first Free City Delivery Service carriers wore whatever they chose on the job. By 1868, uniforms were required, although they were not standardized across the country until the end of the 19th century.

Until 1887, the Post Office Department stipulated that only cities with populations in excess of 20,000 were eligible for free delivery. After 1887, the department opened the service up to areas with either populations exceeding 10,000, or postal revenues in excess of $10,000. Just as rural postmasters could later demand that roads be easy to travel and free of obstructions before service could begin, urban postmasters could insist on certain civic improvements. Before agreeing to establish free city delivery, postmasters could ask that the city's sidewalks be paved, the streets lit, the houses numbered, and that street names be placed at intersections.

By the end of the 19th century, 13,696 letter carriers were delivering city mail. Today, over 250,000 men and women deliver mail to cities across the country.

Short silent film depicting letter carriers in 1903 leaving a post office for the day's delivery.