Join the National Postal Museum on May 6 as Cameron Blevins discusses his new book, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, in conversation with historian Robert Dalton Harris.
The size and scope of the modern USPS is awe-inspiring; more than 30,000 post offices servicing 160 million addresses, delivering 142.6 billion individual articles of mail in 2019 alone. And yet, in the late nineteenth century, the postal service staffed double the number of offices, making it the largest business operation in the world.
The postal network's sprawling geography and localized operations force a reconsideration of the American state, its history, and the ways in which it exercised power. In Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West (Oxford University Press | April 2021), Cameron Blevins argues that the US Post wove together two of the nineteenth century’s defining projects: western expansion and the growth of state power. The American postal system was already transmitting billions of pieces of mail each year; whether neatly filed away in the stacks of an archive or haphazardly piled up inside a shoebox in the corner of an attic, the historical record is littered with letters, newspapers, and postcards that traveled through the US Post. What then explains the relative absence of the US Post in the annals of western history, despite its pervasive presence in the historical archive? When something is everywhere, it can start to become invisible.
Paper Trails maps the spread of the US Post using a dataset of more than 100,000 post offices, revealing a new picture of the federal government in the West. The western postal network bore little resemblance to the civil service bureaucracies typically associated with government institutions. Instead, the US Post grafted public mail service onto private businesses, contracting with stagecoach companies to carry the mail and paying local merchants to distribute letters from their stores. These arrangements allowed the US Post to rapidly spin out a vast and ephemeral web of postal infrastructure to thousands of distant places.
Cameron Blevins, PhD is Associate Professor, Clinical Teaching Track, in the History Department at the University of Colorado Denver, and is a respected leader in the field of digital history.
Robert Dalton Harris, PhD is an independent scholar and co-editor of Postal History Journal who has made communications history his vocation and passion for more than three decades.
Thursday, May 6 at 4 pm Eastern on ZOOM. Registration required.
This event will be recorded. If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Susan Smith at email@example.com