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How the Post Office Made America

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The Post Office Made America.

It’s an ambitious claim, I know, but without it the United States as we know it today would

not exist.

As author Winifred Gallagher eloquently pointed out in her book, “How the Post Office Created

America,” in the years following the American Revolution, one didn’t say, “the United

States is,” they said, “the United States are.”

The country at the time was just a lose collectivity of states.

The national government was weak—people identified with their state first and their

country second.

With the opening of the post office, however, Americans across the continent had for the

first time a direct link to the federal government and the outside world.

In the New England colonies that preceded the United States, infrastructure was poor.

It was considered a great achievement when travelers could finally reach New York from

Boston in under a week.

There was little emphasis on creating roads between colonies since each was a unique,

independent entity.

Some have even attributed the colonist’s lack of attachment to the crown to their lack

of roads.

Those living outside of cities might have never met a royal official in their lives

just because of how hard it was to get around.

Given this, the crown’s postal service in the colonies was slow, expensive, and emphasized

links across the Atlantic to Britain almost more than it did links between the colonies.

Before the American Revolution there were unofficial, almost black market ways of getting

mail around, but the increasingly legitimate continental congress—the group that eventually

declared American independence—realized that in order to properly coordinate and collaborate,

the member colonies needed a way to effectively communicate.

Therefore, surprisingly, the United States Post Office was founded almost a full year

before the United States itself.

In the century following its founding, the US had a bit of a good problem—it expanded

in territory faster than it could expand in people.

For much of its history and still to an extent today, the United States was a country of

vast, untamed wilderness.

This was especially true in the early years to the west of the Appalachians.

Despite the gold rush, California only hit a population of 1 million in about 1890.

By that time the nation had a population of over 60 million.

And between California and the Appalachians during the early 1800s there was hardly anything—

especially roads.

California might as well have been an island.

To get there, most people and mail would take a steamship down to Panama, cross the country

on land, and then reboard a ship to California rather than attempting to cross the continent

by land.

People were naturally afraid to settle the frontier.

The idea of being physically and informationally detached from the civilized world while surrounded

by untamed and dangerous wilderness made it difficult for the new nation to push west.

You have to remember that until the telegraph became widespread in the 1850s and 60s, mail

was quite literally the only way to communicate long-distance.

If you had a post office, you were connected, if you didn’t, you were alone.

Therefore, one of the first steps for a new town to legitimize itself was to appeal to

the federal government for a post office, and this was usually granted.

Having a physical vestige of the federal government in towns across the continent was immensely

beneficial.

Many would even say it played a large role in America’s success.

You see the US today as a fiercely nationalistic country, but, as mentioned, for a while state

came before country, however, these new brick and mortar representations of the power and

benefit of the federal government helped tie the nation together, but the post office’s

impact didn’t stop at its mere existence.

Newspapers shipped free—or at least close to free—and that revolutionized the spread

of information.

In the 1850s, this meant that someone in brand new Houston, Texas could read a newspaper

just as easily as someone in Washington, DC.

If it had been more difficult to distribute national newspapers, individuals wouldn’t

have had information on national politics.

Without knowledge of national politics, the state might have stayed as the dominant entity.

The long overland routes to tiny frontier towns absolutely did not make money, but the

post office wasn’t supposed to make money at the time.

It was there to make living in a frontier town of 1,000 as similar as possible to living

in an east coast town of 100,000.

150 years ago, it took more than a month and a half to travel to many parts of the frontier

from New York… if you could get to them at all, however, the post office needed faster

routes so it created post roads—long rudimentary overland routes.

With time and traffic, however, these post roads developed into America’s first interstate

roads.

The informational links led to a physical links.

A big question, however, was how to efficiently get the mail out into and across the frontier.

In 1860, the railroad ended in western Missouri and after that the mail had to go out over

land.

The Pony Express was a short lived commercial express mail service connecting the end of

the railroad to California.

In only 10 days, it could get a letter from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

This was unbelievable at the time.

Once mail arrived at the end of the railroad line in St Joseph’s, Missouri, a rider would

take the pouch of a mail and immediately start riding west at up to 25 miles per hour—full

speed—and then every 10 or so miles they’d stop at a Pony express station to switch to

a fresh horse.

Every 75 miles, they’d switch riders to keep the mail pouch thundering across the

country day and night.

This didn’t come cheap—it was the equivalent of $130 to send just one half ounce letter—but

time is money and people did pay.

One of the most famous rides of the shortlived Pony Express was following the 1860 presidential

election.

Telegraph did exist at the time but it didn’t stretch all the way across the country.

The eastern line ended in Fort Kearny, Nebraska, so immediately following the news of Lincoln’s

win, a rider set out west.

Using the relay system, riders made their way across the country to Fort Churchill,

Nevada—the beginning of the western telegraph line—to transmit the news.

The west coast papers therefore published the news of Lincoln’s win only seven days

and 17 hours behind the east coast papers.

Just two years earlier, it took 17 days for news to cross the continent.

This was an unbelievable feat.

With the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, however, the Pony

Express closed its doors after only 19 months of operation, but it did play a big role in

the innovation of mail systems.

As mail volume rose to the west coast, the US Post Office looked for ways to further

shorten the travel time across the continent.

Until the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1863, most transcontinental mail

went out to Missouri by rail before switching to lower cost stagecoach rather than the Pony

Express.

At first all westward mail was put on the train to be sorted in Missouri, but in 1862

the first post office on wheels was put into operation.

A staffer would sort the mail while on the move in an identical way as a post office

on land so when it arrived in St Joseph’s, Missouri, it was all split up into different

bundles for different destinations.

This system proved incredibly successful and in the coming decades, the post office gave

exorbitant subsidies and payments to railroads across the country to move mail.

Most lines to small communities would never have been financially viable without the post

office contracts they attracted.

The Post Office, therefore, was instrumental in physically connecting small towns across

America to the outside world.

Expansion was getting easy.

This role in innovation happened once again in in the 1920’s.

Aviation became big during World War One, but once peace was settled it almost became

irrelevant.

Civil aviation was at first nearly nonexistent.

Just months after the end of World War One, however, the first regularly scheduled airmail

route between DC and New York began.

By 1925, airmail routes stretched to hundreds of towns all across the United States.

Just like with the railroad, the post’s subsidies allowed for air service to towns

that would never have been profitable with passenger only flights.

The US air mail service grew to become the largest in the world making the US one of

the most connected countries in the world and its legacy still survives today.

Many of the airlines that merged into United, Delta, and American Airlines were founded

as airmail operators.

It’s easy to forget that 200 years ago only 8 million people lived in the 20 states and

four territories that formed the Union.

The continent filled in incredibly fast and a lot of credit has to be given to the postal

system.

Few countries as large as the US have such a strong national identity.

The spread of information is one of the greatest determinants of a country’s success and

its unlikely the US would be such a global superpower today without the education, connectivity,

and innovation that the post office bought.

Of the five largest countries in the world, the US is the only to not have a serious present-day

sovereignty movement within its borders.

The has to be at least partially attributed to how easy it has always been to spread information

across the country.

It may be obsolete today, but the post office was once the peak of innovation—so much

so that it made America.

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