Benjamin Franklin: Philadelphia’s Postmaster

06.06.2017
Blog

By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator

TV screenshot of Jeopardy game category

Editor’s Note: Benjamin Franklin stands proudly in the Atrium of the National Postal Museum, overlooking what has been named the Franklin Foyer*. A picture of this statue was recently used as a photo-clue in a Jeopardy! category AT THE SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM on May 24th, 2017. Postal Historian Nancy Pope shares with our readers the details of Franklin’s journey to become America’s very first Postmaster General.

By the time Benjamin Franklin was named the nation’s Postmaster General (PMG) in 1775, he had already served with William Hunter as co-Postmaster General under the British (1757-1774). But Franklin’s first experience as a postal employee was in 1737 when he was appointed the postmaster of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 31 years old. Col. Spotswood of Virginia, the British Postmaster General at the time, had become disenchanted with the service of Philadelphia’s current postmaster, Andrew Bradford, and looked to young Franklin for a change.

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Lithuanian-born artist William Zorach (1887-1966) completed the marble statue in 1936. It has been an iconic fixture of the museum since it opened in 1993. On loan from the Fine Arts Program, U.S. General Services Administration.

In his autobiography, Franklin wrote that he accepted the post readily, “and found it of great advantage; for, tho' the salary was small, it facilitated the correspondence that improv'd my newspaper, increas'd the number demanded, as well as the advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a considerable income.”

As a publisher in Philadelphia, Franklin had suffered under the previous postmaster, who like many colonial postmasters was also a newspaper publisher. Publishers vied for postmaster jobs, knowing they would get the news first, could mail their newspapers for free and even refuse competing papers access to the mails. In this instance, the postmaster refused to accept Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, into the mail, thus limiting his ability to sell them beyond the city limits. Franklin did his best to overcome that by bribing postal riders (not unheard of in the colonies), and managed to keep his newspaper afloat. In his autobiography, Franklin notes the joy he took in the role reversal when he took over the job and achieved revenge without resorting to his predecessor’s tactics. “My old competitor's newspaper declin'd proportionately, and I was satisfy'd without retaliating his refusal, while postmaster, to permit my papers being carried by the riders. Thus he suffer'd greatly from his neglect in due accounting.”

In addition to increasing his newspaper subscriptions, Franklin focused on the primary material necessary to keep his newspaper going – paper. Through trades and purchases over the next few years, he became the most important wholesale paper merchant in the colonies. He made investments in paper production, ink production, and of course as postmaster, had a leg up in distributing books and pamphlets. When Franklin traveled, his wife Deborah helped out by running the post office in his absence.

Along with the Gazette, Franklin printed the official documents for Pennsylvania and nearby areas and even paper currency for the colonies. Only three years after becoming Philadelphia’s postmaster, Franklin’s Gazette had become the dominant newspaper in the colonies. While Franklin was responsible for the post office in Philadelphia, he had no control over the rest of the service. Postmaster General Spotswood did his best to improve the often miserable service between towns. One of his changes (later expanded by Franklin when he became PMG) was to have postal riders ride in shorter segments, getting riders to move faster with fresher mounts. In 1739 Spotswood extended mail service to Charleston, South Carolina.

Franklin, as all colonial postmasters, served as the town’s information center. Because the post carried the latest news, those who could not wait for a printed newspaper report would swarm the post office in hopes of learning what was going on. In the spring of 1745, for instance, during the Siege of Louisbourg, Franklin noted that his office was “filled with thirty inquiries at the coming in of every post” as people longed for information.

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Portrait of Ben Franklin rendered by artist Lloyd Branson in 1898. This painting is a copy of Joseph Siffred Duplessis’ famous life portrait of Franklin commissioned while Franklin was in Paris in 1779.

Franklin tried his best to put the Philadelphia post office back in the black. Only a year after taking the job, he advertised that “To prevent the unnecessary Trouble of keeping Accounts, and the Loss that attended delivering Letters on Trust; No Letters will be delivered hereafter to any Person whatever, without the Money immediately paid, which it’s hoped will not be taken ammis.” Unfortunately this warning was for naught, people continued to take in letters on credit and by 1753 people owed the post office more than 800 pounds. Franklin was more successful in his design and printing of a postmaster’s waybill. He created a form with blanks for locations, mail weight and costs. It became very popular with postmasters across the colonies. In 1738 Franklin began printing lists in the Gazette of people who had letters waiting for them at the post office. This public service became so popular that newspapers continued to use it for more than a century.

In 1757, Franklin accepted the position as co-Postmaster General for the British, leaving his Philadelphia postmastership behind. In 1775, Franklin became Postmaster General for the Continental Congress. Thanks to his time as Philadelphia’s postmaster, Franklin understood the demands of mail from a local perspective, and thanks to his time as co-Postmaster General, the demands from a multi-colonial perspective. The two positions certainly helped him become a powerhouse Postmaster General, and a difficult man to follow in that job.

*Thanks to the generous support of our donors, the Franklin Foyer recently welcomed the addition of two beautiful and expansive new cases which will feature rotating exhibitions. Mail Trolleys is available for viewing through September 10th, 2017.

Learn more about the museum’s conservation of the Ben Franklin statue.