Another program initiated under Postmaster General Blair was the system of free mail delivery in cities. The service provided for letter carriers, employed by city post offices, to deliver mail directly to residents’ homes and even pick up outgoing mail. Prior to its inception, the process of obtaining mail from the post office could be a tedious or costly affair. People had to walk to their post office to retrieve or send mail, which took a considerable time out of the day, especially if they lived far from their post office. For those who could afford it, there was another option. Decades earlier, Congress had approved the use of private carriers, giving patrons the option of paying couriers to retrieve their mail. The system was out of the reach of most Americans and only available in large cities.(1)
Blair believed a better system of postal delivery would benefit both the Department and the public. He looked at similar systems already at work in some European cities and believed, in spite of the nation’s size, that such a system might work well in the U.S. He described his intentions in an 1862 letter to Congressman Schuyler Colfax, Chairman of the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads in the House of Representatives:
“We can improve our system very much by…our local service made not only to pay its way, but to compensate for delivering every letter received in cities, at the residences of the citizens, without additional charge.”(2)
Blair’s push for the efficient and cost effective system was apparently heard in Congress—free city delivery went into effect in forty-nine U.S. cities with populations of over 5,000 in July 1863, a year and a half after Blair wrote his letter to Congressman Colfax.(3) Because of the war, the service was only available in the Northern states.
In 1864, the Boston Daily reported that the system had been progressing very well: “Everyone understands how great a convenience it is to be spared the necessity of going or sending to a distance…for a letter, which may just as well be brought to his door.”(4) Free city delivery was a revolutionary step forward for the Post Office Department. It was a crucial stepping stone in transforming the Post Office Department from simply an information-based transportation system to one based on public needs, making it a better-used and more efficient system.