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Serving the Cities

photo from the An Explosion of Mail exhibit

An Explosion of Mail

In the 1880s and 1890s, immigrants streamed to the cities in unprecedented numbers, often leaving their families and friends thousands of miles behind. Their only link with their past was to write. In 1889 alone, over 87 millions letters and cards were exchanged between Europe and the United States, twenty-two times as much correspondence as flowed between the two continents in the years prior to the Civil War. 

Letters joined these immigrants first to their lands of origin and later to their children and grandchildren as these generations, in turn, moved on to other parts of this country. 


photo of the City Free Delivery exhibit

City Free Delivery

Free mail delivery was not available before 1863. Many large post offices had letter carriers, but they weren't paid by the government. They earned their wages by charging recipients one or two cents for each delivered letter. Most people saved their money and picked up their own mail. 


illustration of a street congested with people and cars

Overcoming Congestion

Urban intersections were free-for-alls at the end of the 1800s. Traffic signals had not been invented, and reckless drivers seized the right of way. By 1900, 3 million horses, pulling an assortment of wagons and trolleys, choked U.S. city streets. The postal service moved to solve two growing concerns, transporting an increasing volume of mail into and through the cities and then delivering that mail to the addressee. 


a variety of mailboxes on display

Street Corner Mailboxes

By the mid-1800s adhesive postage stamps were widely used, and the Post Office Department recognized that people no longer needed to go to the post office to deposit their letters. Instead, they could keep stamps at home and mail letters at their leisure. So the department began to build and distribute mailboxes throughout U.S. cities.