The Post Office Department (the precursor to the United States Postal Service) was in a dire position following the Second World War. The volume of the mail going through the Post Office Department [POD] was constantly increasing, but the methods used by the POD to handle the mails remained much the same as they had for decades. Furthermore, the POD was also losing more money every year of its operation. Postal rates were extremely low, and the Department was forced to continually plead with Congress to increase postage rates. To handle deficits and the enormous growth in mail volume, the POD had to modernize before it failed entirely. The POD created an Office of Research and Engineering to help determine methods to handle this ever increasing mail load while also doing it more efficiently and even giving better service to the public, with an ultimate goal of next day delivery for every piece of mail. Many different machines and modes of transportation were tested during this period, from mechanized letter sorters to missiles to carry the mail. Though not all of the projects came into fruition, they were the predecessors to what the United States Postal Service [USPS] uses today to get the mail from one point to another.
Increasing Mail Volume
In 1950, the Post Office Department delivered 45,063,737,000 pieces of mail, which amounted to 296.92 pieces of mail per capita.(1) In 1960 these figures reached 63,674,600,000 and 355.(2) These numbers further increased in 1970 to 84,882,000,000 and 415.(3) The population of the United States was continually increasing, more businesses beginning, and everyone was using the mailing system more and more.
The Department tried many different methods to try to cope with greater and greater mail volumes. These included the “routing of mail around congested cities, making use of new mail concentration centers, and further mechanizing of mail-handling facilities where possible.”(4) Mail often became bottlenecked in some of the larger cities and therefore one solution was to reroute mail so that it was more spread out among other post offices. But this alone could not solve how individual post offices were supposed to handle the additional mail, especially with the trend to decrease the number of post offices in order to save money in the budget.
In the Postmaster General’s Annual Report of 1954, it was noted that “the volume of mail is increasing each year and will require additional employees and building space in approximately direct proportion, if manually handled as now. Our post offices are now overcrowded and labor rates are increasing. The alternative is automation of mail sorting.”(5) The majority of the efforts of the POD were thus given to addressing the issue of modernizing the post offices.
One of the most important hindrances to the Post Office Department’s progress in modernization was the deficit. The POD was continuously operating at a loss and needed changes in its organization and outlook that would help offset the ever increasing deficit. One of the first strategies was to modernize Department finances.
An overhaul of the POD’s financial departments was ordered by the Postmaster General in 1953. Some initial goals of this were to “modernize the Department’s accounting organization and system and install a financial control and reporting adequate for the needs of management.(6) The Comptroller General of the United States wrote that the overhaul should better “(a) reflect revenues and their sources, (b) show costs incurred by the Executive branch in carrying out responsibilities placed upon it by Congress, (c) supply a basis for estimating the cost of proposed activities, (d) furnish a yardstick to measure accomplishments against planned objectives, (e) safeguard public funds, and (f) clearly inform Congress and taxpayers regarding what happens to funds provided for Government activities.”(7) This would therefore let the Department be able to better plan for the future and help limit the augmenting deficit.
The Post Office Department regularly appealed to Congress for rate increases to help combat the deficit. One of the strategies that the Postmaster General laid out for increasing efficiency of the Department and better service was for “continued efforts for a postal rate increase which will drastically reduce the present annual deficit and for a self-sustaining postal service for the future.”(8) This went along with what President Eisenhower wished for the Post Office Department, to “institute a program directed at improving service, while at the same time reducing costs and decreasing deficits.”(9) However, eleven years later it was noted that “despite increases in the rates for sending all of the classes of mail, the postal deficits continued to increase.”(10)
The main program to help the POD increase its efficiency and decrease the deficit over time was the Research and Development department’s work in mechanizing and modernizing post offices. In 1960 Arthur Summerfield, the Postmaster General, noted in the Annual Report that “The capital and research program at the stepped-up rate accounts for $147.2 million of the current year’s postal fund deficit, while the benefits from the program will be realized in future years. Although the Department will continue to utilize efficiently available manpower, any real gains in productivity now lie in the area of mechanization to handle the increasing work load.”(11) As with any R&D program, money spent up front was hoped to bring in savings down the road.
The mechanization program took a long time to get on its feet before new machines could help the post office realize significant increases in productivity. One Senator noted in 1953 that “a large part of the postal deficit is due to waste of manpower and to a shameful lack of modern equipment and modern methods intelligently used.”(12) Four years later, the Department was in the same position. Postmaster General Summerfield wrote that “steadily increasing mail volume, the limited workroom space in post offices and terminals, the predominance of hand operations, and rapidly expanding urban areas continue to create acute mail-handling and delivery problems. In order to provide good service to the public and keep operating costs within bounds, the Department must automate or mechanize these manual functions. Accordingly, research was intensified during fiscal 1957 in automation and mechanization of the highly repetitive and routine mail handling tasks.”(13)
One of the largest organizations in the United States, the Post Office Department was stuck in the past. Practices such as sorting mail by hand and delivering mail on foot needed to be modernized for the POD to see any large increase in efficiency. In 1969 it was written in Science News that “Despite increased attention to research and mechanization in recent years, the U.S. Post Office Department still employs some mail handling procedures dating back 100 years. Hindered by old-fashioned practices, political appointments and bureaucratic procedures the department wallows in a $1.2 billion deficit.”(14)
Peek and Poke (Old Methods)
There were several reasons that the Post Office Department was continuing to operate with old-fashioned techniques in the 1950s. The previous decades in the century were not friendly to new developments in the postal system. In the early part of the twentieth century, some inventors explored plans for machines that would be able to sort mail. These inventors also made machines that might replace clerks’ long hours spent canceling stamps by hand. For a long time in the POD, these machines were the only ones that were used. The events that slowed down innovation in the POD included the Great Depression and World War II.(15) The Department could not afford to study new ways of processing mail during these periods, but just had to focus on doing the best they could with what they had. After the Second World War, though, it was imperative that the POD change its practices.
For a long time the POD was able to get away with using old practices to sort, process, and deliver the mail. One reason that Postmaster General Summerfield gave for the need of the POD to be mechanized was the growth of suburban living areas in the United States. He wrote that “Many of these developments are in locations quite distant from existing postal facilities; a great many have no sidewalks; some must be provided with mail service in boxes at the curb; and for others service must be given at the door.”(16)
The practices were not the only parts of the POD that were outdated; the physical buildings were also getting old. Postmaster General Summerfield critiqued that “The physical plant of the Postal Establishment is inadequate and antiquated. No federal funds have been appropriated for new postal buildings since 1938, and in the 17 years since that time, the postal volume has almost doubled.”(17) The age of the buildings hampered modernization of them. The buildings were not only too old, but they were also “unpleasant and inefficient” places for post office employees to work in.(18) Some of the buildings were so bad that Summerfield wrote that the Post Office Department could not be “considered a human employer” if nothing was changed.(19)
Because of the large deficit, change was slow to come to the buildings. In 1957 Summerfield was still speaking against his employees’ working conditions, saying that People are appalled that out half-million devoted employees must work under deplorable conditions without benefit of modern equipment and adequate facilities.”(20) This same year, more modern buildings were constructed for the post office and improvements were made to several post offices around the country, helping them to become better workplaces, and adding space that was necessary for the new innovations that the POD was hoping would help make service better and more efficient.
The POD was trying to make advances any way it could. Postmaster General Summerfield released to the press that “we have taken from industry or adapted or designed every workable idea we could find – from automatic stamp dispensers and change makers to bank-type counters to new functional light weight trucks and scooters and caddy carts, to lift trucks and portable conveyors. Yes, even ball point pens.”(21) Anything that could seemingly help the POD get out of the large deficit, improve employee morale, or improve efficiency was explored. Tests were made using canned music (Muzak) to see if employees would respond with increased morale and efficiency.
But in many post offices, people were still doing everything by hand. In a brochure about “The World’s Most Mechanized Post Office” in Washington, D.C., it was noted that “In most post offices mail is still sorted and distributed by costly tedious hand methods and procedures that haven’t changed much since Ben Franklin’s day.”(22) This method was commonly called the “peek and poke” method because of how clerks would have to look at the address on the letter and sort the mail into boxes according to their destination. Such a table with various boxes was invented in Franklin’s time and was still the predominant way of sorting mail almost 200 years later.
In the 1950’s it was a goal of the POD to eliminate such costly hand sorting and switch to a more efficient machine processing of mail. At this time, “‘revolutionary’ changes ‘unparalleled in postal history’ [were] underway in the Post Office Department.”(23) ;An example of the problems that this costly hand sorting operation had on the mail flow throughout the country were especially apparent in the large post offices throughout the nation. Calls for modernization were made at first for the large post offices across the country because they were becoming bottlenecks to the processing of mail. In 1958, the main post office in New York was handling eleven percent of the nation’s mail volume, which was also six percent of the world’s mail volume. This came out to be about 6.7 billion pieces of mail that year. All of those pieces of mail were still processed by hand, which was extremely costly and inefficient. The POD called for a modernization program for the fifty most important post offices in the United States to eliminate such hand sorting and mechanize as much work as possible.(24)
In 1959, an article in The Washington Post noted that the Department “had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the automation of the 20th century,” with the introduction of “modern machines into the musty, tradition-bound postal system.”(25) Five years later, the Department was not being applauded for its modernization practices, but was once again being criticized for its outdated practices. The Direct Mail Advertising Association wrote a letter in 1964 to Postmaster General Gronouski in which they “recommended an immediate reevaluation of Post Office Department methods and practices, the elimination of antiquated and expensive built-in-postal costs, and the readjustment of archaic philosophies that have been handed down through the years.”(26) A couple years later the next Postmaster General was still being critical of the modes being utilized by the Post Office Department. Postmaster General O’Brien was “openly critical of the Department’s using horse and buggy methods in the jet and space age.”(27)
People had high hopes for the future of the Department’s delivery systems. A drawing in the Washington Post Parade showed a contrast of methods then and the methods of tomorrow. The caption stated that while “today’s clerk slowly sorts mail,” “tomorrow’s post office has rockets, helicopters.”(28) The Postmaster General of that time, Summerfield, was optimistic of the future of the POD. He stated that the image of helicopters and rockets delivering the mail was “no H.G. Wells concept of the future. Man is on his way to outer space. Wherever man goes, mail must follow – even to the moon and beyond.”(29) However, many of these projects that Summerfield was so enthusiastic about failed. Nevertheless, during his time as Postmaster General many developments were made in letter processing.
The POD was in transition from one era to another. The Department realized that the future of the postal system had to be changed from one that focused on humans handling the mail to one that placed machines as the center of operations. By transferring from human to machines, this would “permit higher processing speeds and lower unit-handling cost,” both of which would enable the Post Office Department to come closer to its goals of increased efficiency and better service.(30)
Behind Private Corporations
Because the Post Office Department had several unique characteristics about it, such as being a federal institution (before the creation of the United States Postal Service, a quasi-public corporation) it fell behind what was normal for some private corporations. Whereas private companies could have reduced salaries or cut the number of jobs, the Post Office Department was unable to do so because of the large postal unions. Therefore, the Department had to depend on mechanization working to lower costs.(31)
However, the POD was slow to get mechanization moving, primarily because of their relatively tiny R&D budget, especially when compared to private companies. While many of the post offices still relied on sorting by hand, a Chicago Tribune reporter found a United Parcel Service [UPS] sorting facility to be “a marvel of mechanization. Every package brought into the facility moves by conveyor belt, is sorted into revolving bins, and never stops moving until loaded into a truck and ready for delivery.”(32) Furthermore, there is a large difference between the POD and most companies in that the POD had a very large workforce that must be budgeted for. In 1971 it was noted that while private corporations would have excessively large labor bills if it approached 50 percent of the budget to be spent on employee’s labor, the POD was spending over 80 percent of its budget on labor.(33)
The politics and bureaucracy of the Department caused many delays in modernization. Because Postmasters General were political appointees, there were changes in the Department after every presidency. Nevertheless, the amount of money that was allocated for research and development consistently fell behind private industry’s standards. In 1965 the amount allocated for research and development was one half of one percent of all estimated postal spending. The industry standard, according to the National Science Foundation, for companies over 5,000 employees, was to spend a little over two percent, which is four times the total of what the Post Office Department, one of the largest businesses by the number of people employed, was spending.(34) This contrast was even worse in comparison to spending on R&D as a percentage of total earnings of a company. In Science News it was written that “The long-range objective: next day delivery of preferential mail posted any-where in the United States. But to achieve it… the Post Office now spends only .01 percent of earnings on research and development, against an average of 3.0 percent in industry.”(35)
Can’t Afford Not To
The Post Office Department was essentially forced to modernize because it had no other option. The Department could either mechanize its operations or it would eventually be forced to halt operations because of an inability to handle the increasing mail volume. Postmaster General Summerfield wrote that “The Post Office must mechanize because, if the mail volume continues to grow, it would be impossible to cope with the great flood of mail within a relatively few years, using present-day methods.”(36) The POD thus chose to create an Office of Research and Engineering that would handle research and development that would hopefully create machines and post offices that would increase productivity while, in the long run, decrease the Department’s budget.