The Service in Use
As with any new service, there was a period of adjustment. Not only did it take a while to understand just what was or wasn’t mailable (not to mention which stamps to use for the service), but also just how to correctly wrap a package. Postmasters in many towns created parcel post exhibits in their post offices. These exhibits ranged from simple instructions on how to wrap a package to displays of dozens of items that could now go through the mail, with helpful hints on how to package them for safe and secure arrival.
However they wrapped their packages, Americans loved the service, mailing 300 million parcels in the first six months of the service. As some had predicted (or warned, depending on viewpoint), large mailing houses did profit from this increase in reach, especially into the households of rural Americans. 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.
Many newspaper editors, having called for the service for years, were not shy about touting a victory of parcel post over the express companies. While noting that Dr. C.W. Cowan was the first to mail a parcel in Canfield, Ohio, the Mahoning Dispatch also noted that the package, mailed to West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, cost only eight cents by parcel post, but would have cost 30 cents by express.(1) An editorial in the Washington Times painted the appearance of parcel post as a groundbreaking victory. Titled “Another Bastille Taken,” the editorial colorfully boasted that “in other days there would have been bonfires lighted on every hilltop and bells sounded bravely in church steeples and bands of music braying in every town to mark rejoicing over such a victory as that signified by the inauguration of the parcel post law.” The editorial points out the weaknesses of the nation’s express companies and takes a slap at those in Congress who fought parcel post service for so long, saying that “it was developed from a reasonable enterprise to an unreasonable monopoly. It organized its own lobby. It ‘owned’ its Senators and Congressmen.”(2) In Lynden, Washington, the local editor referred to stories that express companies would be lowering their costs to compete. “The express companies which have extorted unreasonable tolls from their patrons for years past now announce they are going to come down on their rates and that in the future they will meet the government’s parcel post competition. If it has done nothing more, this driving down of robber tolls has made the parcel post experiment an expense well incurred.”(3) A Seattle, Washington editor bitterly noted that “there is no doubt but that the parcel’s post will hit the express trust a hard blow, but it will still make more money than its members can expend in ten life times of an ordinary person.”(4)
Some of the most ardent opponents of parcel post service cited the impending doom of small town country merchants as a critical reason for keeping it from passing. Critic after critic painted doom-filled visions of a future with only large urban department stores in business across the country, bringing items directly to customers’ doorsteps, bypassing middlemen or country stores. Once parcel post was set to begin, a number of small stores stepped up to advertise special “parcel post” rates and bargains, eager to remind customers to, as a store might put it today, “shop local first.” In Price, Utah, the City Drug Store advertised in the local newspaper that they would pay the postage for parcel post packages (within a 50-mile zone). As the ad noted, “Why send way back East for your wants in the Drug Store Lone when you can buy right here in Price everything that you need.”(5)
Editors of the San Francisco Call referred to opponents’ warnings that the service would fail, or be an “untoward burden” on the public “was a bogy to frighten children,”(6) disproven by the massive success of the service in its first two weeks. The same newspaper shared a cartoon the week before showcasing the dangers to the poor letter carrier’s back by an imagined variety of parcel post package demands. In spite of their fears, express companies found that their business did just fine, in fact even increasing until the First World War. Their fates were tied to that of the nation’s railroads, which faced a myriad of challenges at the time, threatening the government’s ability to run war efforts efficiently. During that war the U.S. Railway Administration took control of the nation’s railroads and a number of express companies were consolidated.
1 The Mahoning Dispatch, January 03, 1913, front page
2 The Washington Times, January 2, 1913, page 8
3 The Lynden Tribune, January 2, 1913, page 4
4 The Seattle Republican, January 3, 1913, page 1
5 Eastern Utah Advocate, January 2, 1913, page 5
6 San Francisco Call, January 13, 1913
7 San Francisco Call, January 5, 1913