From its founding, the U.S. postal system has provided access to information for American citizens. Through mail, people can stay informed and participate in the world around them...but getting the mail to every citizen hasn’t always been an easy task. Throughout history, mail has had to be delivered by a variety of creative means to remote communities in Alaska —such as dog sled teams that braved the jagged ice of the frozen Yukon River each winter in order to uphold the promise of the postal system for U.S. citizens.
While the postal facilities onboard U.S. navy ships look quite different than your neighborhood post office, they have a very similar purpose, facilitating the sending and receiving of mail. Despite remarkably cramped quarters and other challenges, the military and the postal service work hard to make mail services as easy and accessible to military personnel as they are used to back home. Domestic postal rates from across the ocean and dedicated personnel help facilitate the process. The right of citizens to send and receive mail, even when stationed elsewhere by the government, has led to many innovations in mail delivery.
Postmaster General Samuel Osgood cited, “More traveling...than a woman could undertake” as explanation for his decision to remove female postmaster Mary Katherine Goddard from her position in Baltimore, Maryland in 1789. Goddard had been in the position since 1775—a common appointment for those who also owned a printing and publishing business as she did. But despite her qualifications and popularity, sexism allowed Osgood to replace her with his personal friend and political ally, John White. A petition signed by over 230 Baltimore residents attempted to reinstate Goddard after her removal, but was not successful. Government support was not available to all citizens equally in this case.
While the presence of African Americans in the postal service was not entirely uncommon in 1891, the appointment of John T. Jackson as postmaster of Alanthus, Virginia was part of a new movement. The “black vote” was essential to the Republican Party after the Civil War and a number of African Americans were appointed to civil service offices. But despite the official appointments, African American postmasters like Jackson still faced onslaughts of racial discrimination from angered citizens who opposed having an African American in such a prominent and respected position. Who was and wasn’t a citizen of a community was being fought with postal appointments.
What happens when the rights of a citizen are suddenly taken away from you? Here are two letters from citizens who found themselves imprisoned by their own governments—one incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the other in Camp Rohwer in the United States as part of the incarceration of Japanese American citizens. For such individuals, mail service provided one of few remaining ways to connect with the outside world. Nevertheless, their mail underwent censorship, which could consist of extensive review and sometimes editing or destruction. How does the right to communicate freely interact with other rights of citizenship?
What is an American and who defines the category? The question of who is a citizen of a nation is a question of both our past and present. In the 1920s immigration issues and definitions of citizenship became a heated topic and, with the release of these commemorative stamps, the everyday act of mailing a letter became part of that conversation. The scenes portrayed on the stamps depicted and legitimized a specific narrative of American history and immigration. Whose narrative was put forward on the stamps? How does that shape the idea of citizenship and immigration?
These 1920’s commemorative stamps promote a particular narrative of American history to immigrants while reinforcing a narrative of belonging for particular groups.