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1847 US map
1847 US map

“Congress shall have the power to establish Post Offices and post roads.” —United States Constitution, Section 8, Clause 1/7

The Star Route Service began as an effort to save money and expand the range of the postal system. Despite episodes of scandal and strife, it became an integral part of mail transportation in the United States. For more than 150 years, the Star Route Service has transported mail within cities, between cities, and to the homes of citizens across the United States.

Winning a Contract

Advertisements announced available Star Routes and contractors offered proposals for carrying the mail. Typically, Star Route contracts were awarded for four-year terms. The contractors had to carry insurance and take an oath of office.

The language and specifications of Star Route contracts changed over time. Originally, Star Route contractors chose the mode of transportation. Today, postal officials designate the route and mode of transportation.

Star Route Mail Lettings- Route advertisement, 1926
Route advertisement, 1926. Courtesy of USPS.

Star Route Scandal

"With all the frauds exposed in the conduct of the star routes it is still incontrovertible that the management of the post-office has been honest, cheap, expeditious, and a great public convenience."— Chicago Tribune, 1883

In the 1880s, scandal struck the Star Route Service. A group including assistant postmaster general Thomas Brady and former senator Stephen Dorsey over-funded Star Route contracts and skimmed off some of the money. A route in the Dakotas that was $2,350 in one year increased to $32,000 the next; another in the Southwest rose from $6,330 to $150,691. A Congressional investigation revealed the illegal contracts. Brady and many others went on trial but were never convicted.

Rewarding Excellence

“I am writing to you about my route, no. 45207. There have been several bids gone in on this route. One of the bidders is a professional drunkard. I have raised my bid on this route because I have carried this mail at a loss for the last 4 years. I would appreciate any help you can give me.” —Joseph T. Howard, 1947

In the 1940s, the Star Route Service again faced issues of bidding. Competent contractors were underbid by competitors who ultimately failed to move the mail on time for the contract price. In 1948, Congress passed a bill permitting the Postmaster General to renew contracts with reliable carriers rather than re-bid them.