Congressional Opposition

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Postmaster General John Wanamaker

For at least twenty years, however, little debate found its way into Congress. By the last decades of the 19th century, package delivery was dominated by a handful of private companies. Their domination of the package market, and influence in Congress were so great that when asked what was stopping the Post Office Department from instituting a national parcel post service, Postmaster General John Wanamaker once replied that there were four reasons why they couldn’t have a parcel post service in this country—the Adams, the American, the United States, and the Wells-Fargo Express Companies. (In 1914, Frank H. Platt, then director of the United States Express Company, and son of New York Senator Thomas Platt, a vocal and powerful opponent of a governmental parcel post, turned Wanamaker’s quote around, arguing that supporters had been pawns of big city department stores.(1) Platt argued as many had when Wanamaker was postmaster general in the 1880s that his push for such a service was out of self-interest, creating bigger markets for his Philadelphia store. Platt told reporters that there were “four reasons for a parcel post. The first was John Wanamaker, the second was John Wanamaker, the third was John Wanamaker and the fourth was John Wanamaker.”(2)

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Senator Thomas Platt

Platt continued with an argument that had been popular with the opposition. “There was never much of a real demand for the parcel post outside of that stirred up by them. Being great advertisers, they had the press, and that is the whole story. The parcel post is principally a subsidy of the mail-order and department store people, and is paid for by the United States out of the additional revenue coming from the income tax.”(3) Both sides of the parcel post debate accused organizations of rabble rousing. Supporters accused small merchant and salesmen’s organizations of trying to rally opposition to the service among farmers in their communities.

Although neither Platt, father, nor son, wanted to acknowledge it, there was a vocal and wide-spread call for the Post Office Department to offer parcel post from Americans unaffiliated with any department store or mail-order house. The loudest advocates for the service were rural Americans. The National Grange, the nation’s oldest agricultural organization, forwarded thousands of signatures calling for parcel post to Congress. Grange officials argued that government intervention in the package delivery business would create standardized, nation-wide rates that would favor rural areas. In addition, farmers would gain wider access to consumer goods as well as greater, and easier, access to markets for their products. Rural organizations also used the same argument for parcel post that they had made for Rural Free Delivery. It would continue to bring rural Americans into greater contact with the outside world.

Some proponents of the service argued that the best approach would be to install parcel post for rural routes only. Acknowledging that farmers’ voices were the loudest in demanding the service, and that rural Americans were 54% of the nation’s population, such a compromise would bring the service into existence with less resistance. Of course what proponents hoped, but did not acknowledge openly, was that a rural parcel post service would be a wedge leading to a rollout of the service on a national level.

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Left to right: Thomas Depew, Nelson Aldrich, “Uncle Joe” Cannon
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“St. George” facing an express & railway company dragon

The road to government-run package service ran through the U.S. Congress, where the roadblocks were some of the most powerful men in both houses. There, Senator Platt was joined by Thomas Depew (New York) and Nelson Aldrich (Rhode Island) in the Senate and “Uncle Joe” Cannon, the powerful and influential US Representative from Illinois, in opposition to the service. These influential congressmen had financial interests in express companies and railroad lines, neither group eager to see the government competing in the parcel delivery business. An editorial in The San Francisco Call put it this way: “So long as the express companies and their allies of the railroads can control Congress we may have all the parcels post conveniences with foreign countries we choose, but we can have none at home. The improvement can be brought about only by united effort of the people.”(4) A cartoonist for Pearson’s Magazine depicted a senatorial proponent of the service as “St. George” facing an express & railway company dragon.

By 1911 the private express companies had lost their congressional allies and parcel post legislation finally had a chance to reach the floor. Among those testifying on behalf of the service were owners and representatives of large city merchants, as opponents warned. E.W. Bloomingdale testified as a representative of not only his store, but other large “retail houses of New York” in favor of the service. Bloomingdale argued that small town merchants should welcome the service. “I think, perhaps, it would bring some business to the country too I think the country merchant would take advantage of the lower cost in getting his goods.”(5)

National Grange officers were among those testifying in favor of the service in the 1911 hearings. They were joined by the Farmer’s Union, the Farmer’s National Congress, the American Florists Association, and a number of local retail and trade associations. Also testifying were officers of the Postal Progress League, organized in the early 1900s to win a variety of postal reforms, including “the establishment of domestic parcel post.”(6)

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Jonathan Bourne Jr.

By 1912 Congress had passed the legislation (based on Senator Jonathan Bourne Jr.’s (R-OR) ) bill, creating national parcel post service. After years of debate, Parcel Post finally arrived in the United States in 1913, making it the last of the major industrialized nations to adopt the service. It was eagerly welcomed by many, with the loudest cheers coming from America’s farm families. They could now order goods from anywhere that would be brought directly to their homes!

The Post Office Department divided the nation into a series of eight zones. Packages weighing up to 11 pounds and a total measurement equal or less than 72 inches would now be permitted in the mail. A series of special stamps were created for use on parcel post packages, and their use was required, or packages were rejected at the window.

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1913 map of eight Parcel Post zones

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Parcel Post stamps created for use on parcel post packages

1) John Wanamaker’s family owned and operated Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

2) “Hits Wanamaker and Parcel Post,” The New York Times, March 15, 1914.

3) Ibid.

4) San Francisco Call, December 21, 1900.

5) “Parcel Post Hearings Before Subcommittee Number 4 of the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads”, June 1911, Washington GPO, p. 102.

6) “Postal Progress League,” Boston Evening Transcript, February 19, 1902, p. 2