Women’s roles in early American mail service are difficult to identify. Official records documenting their involvement are rare. Their participation and experiences were more commonly communicated through oral narratives and observations by higher-level officials. In the monthly publication of The Postal Record, a June 1896 article titled “Postmistress [sic] 200 Years Ago” covered the story of the “first keeper of the mail department of Salem” who was a woman identified as Lydia Hill.1 The story was written to give “encouragement” to women of the 1890s “struggling to obtain their rights” in the postal system. The article emphasized that even in the seventeenth century women exercised very important roles.2 Only a few served as postmasters, however. Women usually performed non-traditional postal work, which was necessary to keep the mail service operating.
Given that post offices in early and colonial America occupied the same space as general stores and printing businesses, the wife or female household members who assisted in the shops very likely performed postal duties as well. On May 7, 1764, Elizabeth Franklin, wife of John Franklin and sister-in-law to Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin, was mentioned in a Boston Papers advertisement, selling goods at the family store, which was also a post office. The advertisement said: “Elizabeth Franklin sells at the Post Office in Boston, Genuine Crown Soap, C-andles [sic], Cheese, & c.”3 Even Benjamin Franklin enlisted the help of his wife at his Philadelphia post office.4 Women were not always directly handling the mail, but they helped keep the system running. When post-riders arrived at checkpoints to change horses and to deliver and pick up mail, women household members likely provided them with refreshments and lodging.5
Other early American women acquired postal positions indirectly. For instance, they might continue their husbands’ postal duties after the spouse had passed away or moved on to other career opportunities. References to early American female postmasters include Elizabeth Timothy who was a distinguished printer and publisher in South Carolina. Timothy “continued in the capacity of postmistress,” a position held by her late husband Lewis.6 Her printing office also served as the headquarters for “distribution of local letters, packages, and papers.”7
Throughout the Revolutionary War, women temporarily replaced war-bound husbands or brothers, managing the printing shops or performing postal work. In addition to the historical references and anecdotes of female postmasters is the tale of Tempe Wick, who reportedly delivered military dispatches from Jockey Hollow to Ford Mansion, New Jersey—the headquarters of General George Washington, in the winter of 1777.8
After the war, a subtle but important change in the perception of a woman’s role in the public was noticeable. Citizens who espoused Republican rhetoric were impressed with the “patriotic women” who “supported the war effort.”9 Printer and publisher Mary Katherine Goddard who may have been the first woman postmaster in colonial America to embody the values of “Republicanism”—“independence and the sacrifice of self-interest for the public good”—admired by the public.10 Not very far from where Goddard served as postmaster in Baltimore, Elizabeth Creswell was appointed postmaster of Charlestown, Maryland in 1786.11 Despite the increasing number of recorded appointments of woman postmasters, Goddard’s dismissal in 1789 by Postmaster General Samuel Osgood confirmed the exclusion of women from prestigious political appointments because of a commonly-held belief that they had no right to participate in politics. Since most of the appointments were distributed among political allies, women could not benefit from the system. Thus, Goddard’s unwarranted removal in 1789 was simply a preview of what would develop into the systematization of political patronage under the Jackson’s administration.12