The Revolutionary Post

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There are currently more than 31,000 post offices in the United States. There are grand old ones that take up entire city blocks and there are smaller humbler ones hiding away in the backs of general stores in towns across rural America. But this one in Arizona may be the most rural post office in the continental US.

Vivian Campbell:
The Supai post office is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Roman Mars:
That’s Vivian Campbell.

Vivian Campbell:
My name is Vivian Campbell and I am the postmaster of Peach Springs, Arizona.

Roman Mars:
Vivian works closely with the Supai post office and she says there are only a few ways to get mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Vivian Campbell:
You either have to hike down there, ride a mule, or ride a horse.

Roman Mars:
And so every day rain or shine, mail gets packed on 10 mules to make a two and a half hour trip into the canyon. The post office is there to serve the people who live on the Havasupai Reservation. Havasupai, meaning blue-green water people, named for the waterfall at the bottom of the canyon.

Vivian Campbell:
The falls are just magnificent. The water is so blue, it’s not even… It’s indescribable.

Roman Mars:
The Havasupai receive a lot of food supplies, but otherwise, their mail is pretty standard fare.

Vivian Campbell:
They get packages from Amazon, they get first-class mail, they get bills just like you and me.

Roman Mars:
The Supai post office was established in 1896 and its existence speaks to the links that the US post office has gone to connect people with each other and to unite us as a country. Ever since the service was founded in the late 1700s.

Winifred Gallagher:
I was sitting on my back porch in Wyoming one night, you know, the sun sank in the golden west and I just jumped up out of the chair and then shrieked at my husband. The post office created America.

Roman Mars:
That is author and historian Winifred Gallagher, and she wrote a book based on this revelation called appropriately…

Winifred Gallagher:
‘How the Post Office Created America: A History’

Roman Mars:
Gallagher argues that the post office didn’t just create an efficient and inexpensive way to send a letter from Oakland, California into the Grand Canyon, the service was designed to unite a bunch of disparate towns and people under one flag. And in doing so, the post office actually created the United States of America.

Roman Mars:
For thousands of years, governments have had ways of sending information across distances, but for most of history the mail was limited to correspondence between governments, militaries, and eventually wealthy people who could afford to pay for such a service. And that’s what the postal system of early colonized America was like. The Crown’s Post was put in place by the English monarchy and was mostly used to get messages from England to America.

Winifred Gallagher:
Once the mail landed from England into America, it would be circulated by a fellow called a ‘post rider’ who, just like he sounds, he was a man on a horse. There were no roads suitable for a wheeled vehicle.

Roman Mars:
At the time, the colonies, which dotted the eastern coast from New Hampshire down to Georgia, weren’t that interested in communicating with each other.

Winifred Gallagher:
The colonies were very fractious, disputatious siblings. They had very little to do with each other. They were clamoring for the attention of Mother England.

Roman Mars:
But all of this started to change when an enterprising fellow named Benjamin Franklin became postmaster for the Crown. As postmaster, Franklin was in charge of making sure mail in the colonies got to its proper location and he was determined to improve the barebone system.

Winifred Gallagher:
He actually visited every colony. This is back when it was a real pain in the neck. He established mileposts so you could charge fairly for the distance a letter was going instead of just estimating it.

Roman Mars:
But as Franklin worked to improve the Crown system, he began to see the colonies differently.

Winifred Gallagher:
I believe that the process of going around and thinking about these 13 colonies as not just disconnected, but links in a chain. I think this started him thinking about ways that they could come together as a people.

Roman Mars:
In 1754, at a meeting of colonial representatives in Albany, New York, Franklin proposed a plan for uniting the colonies.

Winifred Gallagher:
He actually kind of sketched out of federal government where the colonies would elect their own representatives as opposed to having them appointed by the Crown.

Roman Mars:
England didn’t appreciate Franklin’s ideas and colonists weren’t quite ready for them either, but 20 years later, notions about American self-governance were spreading. Revolutionaries and the colonies needed a way to communicate about the growing movement for independence, and they knew they couldn’t use the Crown’s post.

Winifred Gallagher:
Because if they use the Crown system, their letters would be intercepted and they’d be arrested.

Roman Mars:
In 1774, these American revolutionaries created their own system to communicate called the ‘Constitutional Post’. Before they fought the revolution or had a system of government, before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Americans had the post. The underground Constitutional Post was crucial in fomenting the revolution which gave America independence from England, but it was still a very limited system.

Roman Mars:
There were fewer than a hundred post offices in the entire country and the system didn’t serve that many people and it was basically a tool for political elites to communicate with each other. The founders wanted a better post, one that would serve all people in their infant nation and help them stay united under one flag.

Winifred Gallagher:
These people who are already spreading over the Appalachians into the wild west of Ohio and Kentucky.

Roman Mars:
Founding father Benjamin Rush especially believe that the post office would play a crucial role in the new democracy.

Winifred Gallagher:
He was obsessed with the idea that the post office should circulate newspapers to every American. You couldn’t have an educated electorate if the people weren’t literate and they didn’t have up-to-date political information.

Roman Mars:
But this would be no small undertaking. They needed infrastructure of roads and a workforce.

Winifred Gallagher:
This government had very little money. It was running on fumes, and yet he says, ‘We’re going to have this very, very ambitious postal system, much more ambitious than anything in Europe’. It’s really kind of astounding.

Roman Mars:
In 1792, Congress passed the Post Office Act. Under the act. New postal routes were established, censoring or stealing mail became a punishable offense and all newspapers can be mailed at the same low rate to promote the spread of information. It set off a huge explosion of newspapers from all sorts of political viewpoints. The post office was the main way, sometimes the only way people got information. It was the media

Winifred Gallagher:
We were news junkies back then. The founders ensured that we would have an uncensored, lively, contentious political culture because they wanted the people to be exposed to all kinds of views and argue it out and then vote.

Roman Mars:
We’ve been arguing and gossiping and spreading information – not all of it true – since the very beginning.

Winifred Gallagher:
In a way, you could take the attitude of ‘they sort of created a Frankenstein’, but in fact it was by design.

Roman Mars:
Around the same time in the late 1700s, the stagecoach was becoming a more popular way to travel and a better way to carry mail than just packing up a rider on a horse. The post office started to contract with private stagecoach companies to carry mail and these companies worked with cities and towns to build roads.

Roman Mars:
In this way, the post helped carve out the early transportation infrastructure of the country connecting disparate communities. When a group of people settled in a new place, the residents would petition the government for a post office, which gave them the address and a place on the map.

Winifred Gallagher:
And then that town would be connected to another town down the road. You started to have this kind of network. It’s developed, not just our physical landscape with roads, but a social landscape so that you could start to talk about this huge country with some locations.

Roman Mars:
In 1831, when the French diplomat and writer Alexis de Tocqueville toured America, he was amazed by our postal system.

Winifred Gallagher:
He’s riding in a stage coach through someplace in the Michigan outback and he sees people coming out of these kind of crude huts, you know, cabins, desperate to get the newspapers enabled to talk about not just American politics, but what’s going on in Europe. He’s flabbergasted.

Roman Mars:
At this point, the mail in the US was mostly about sending and receiving newspapers. People didn’t really send letters because they couldn’t afford to.

Winifred Gallagher:
They kept the rates for letters high and they use that revenue from letters to pay for the delivery of newspapers to all Americans everywhere. Most people got fewer than letter a year. You get a letter saying, ‘Paul has died’ or or you’d get Aunt Latisha’s will.

Roman Mars:
And unlike today where the person sending a letter covers the cost of postage, back then the recipient had to pay. You go to the post office, you’d stand in line and see if you had mail and then pay for it if you wanted it.

Winifred Gallagher:
It created this fantastic backlog of unclaimed mail, because so many people didn’t want to pay.

Roman Mars:
In the 1840s and 50s, the population of the country exploded with new immigrants and all of these new people wanted a less expensive way to communicate. A movement for cheap postage started to form. This movement wanted people to be able to send letters anywhere in the US for one low price using a new tool, the prepaid postage stamp.

Winifred Gallagher:
They argued that the volume of the mail would increase to a degree that would make up for the revenue and they were correct. Because the volume of the mail really went gangbusters after a cheap postage.

Roman Mars:
The postage stamp allowed regular people to send letters. People sent enough letters to fill out dozens of Ken Burns documentaries. It was the Victorian era and letter writing became an art form. There were even books with advice on how to refine your letter writing style.

Excerpt from Letter-Writing Book:
“Address your correspondent by his or her title, not the first name – dear husband, beloved brother, dearest friend, honored sir. No matter how close you are, don’t address him by his first name. Begin your letter with I take pen in hand. Please pardon the poor paper, the scratchy pen. The ungraceful language.”

Roman Mars:
Women especially became avid letter writers.

Winifred Gallagher:
Women actually started wearing little lockets around their necks with their stamps inside.

Roman Mars:
With more women using the post office, the place itself began to change. Post offices historically had been often in the backs of taverns. They were men’s social spaces.

Winifred Gallagher:
You know, there were prostitutes at the post office plying their wares and, famously, pickpockets.

Roman Mars:
When women started sending letters, post offices added special ladies windows so that ladies could pick up their letters without coming into contact with these unseemly elements. Slowly, post offices transitioned into more professional spaces.

Roman Mars:
By 1860, there were some 28,000 post offices in the U S people were sending thousands of letters and newly invented greeting cards to each other, but they were also using the post just like the founders intended to disseminate political information. Abolitionists, for example, were using the mail to spread ideas about ending slavery. In the 1860s, when the Civil War was being fought over some of those very ideas, the American post office would bifurcate for a time. No mail would be sent between North and South. And the Civil War brought another big change in America’s postal system: home delivery.

Winifred Gallagher:
A postal employee in Ohio named Joseph Briggs found it heartbreaking during the war because people desperate for news of their soldiers away, would have to stand in long lines at the post office.

Roman Mars:
Often, these people would be receiving news of a loved one’s death.

Winifred Gallagher:
And there were just scenes of terrible, terrible grief and in public. They didn’t even have privacy and he found it so heartbreaking that he ran this pilot program of bringing people the mail.

Roman Mars:
Home delivery caught on, and by the mid 1860s many cities were offering it. About 30 years later, people living in rural areas would also get home delivery. But while people in the eastern United States entered a letter writing boom, new settlers in California felt isolated. It was hard to receive mail on the west coast.

Winifred Gallagher:
So the mail could go by train to Missouri, but then it had to be hauled by stage coaches through really terrible conditions.

Roman Mars:
The other option would be to send a letter on a 13,000 mile, six-month trip around the tip of South America by boat.

Winifred Gallagher:
Californians, as they became more powerful by the gold rush era in the succeeding years, became outraged by the fact that they had this lousy postal service and they demanded to have a reliable stagecoach mail that would depart and arrive on predictable times.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, they got what they wanted. By 1857, the post office had a fairly reliable route from east to west. It took 25 days, which was better than it had been, but it was still not great.

Roman Mars:
A group of businessmen led by a guy named William Russell, thought they could do better than the US post. Russell thought his little startup company could get the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in just 10 days.

Winifred Gallagher:
He, in fact, he did it. People didn’t think he’d be able to do it.

Roman Mars:
Russell’s competing service was called the Pony Express. Riders on horseback would race at full speed for about 10 or 15 miles to relay stations where they would trade out for a rested horse. This change was supposed to take only two minutes. Horses were to carry no more than 165 pounds, including the rider. If an exhausted horse collapsed on the trail, the rider was to run on foot to the next location with his bag of mail. It was a very expensive endeavor and it didn’t last long, about a year and a half, which was okay because by 1861 the transcontinental telegraph would reach California and rail service would soon follow.

Roman Mars:
Trains would eventually deliver mail all over the US and not just deliver it, but become moving post offices. In fact, subsidies from the post office allowed the rail system to expand throughout the country. Trains couldn’t afford to run on passenger fare alone. The money they got from the post office was crucial in helping them expand service. Years earlier, these postal subsidies had done the same thing for stagecoaches and after World War I, the post would do this again for aviation. Planes were not a viable form of transportation until the post office poured money into the industry.

Winifred Gallagher:
The aviation industry wasn’t able to pay for itself with passenger service until well into the 1940s.

Roman Mars:
The industry survived and expanded by carrying mail for the post office. In fact, before Charles Lindbergh made his historic non-stop flight across the Atlantic, he had another job.

Winifred Gallagher:
Charles Lindbergh was a night pilot. He carried the mail.

Roman Mars:
If the post office truly created America, and I think Winifred Gallagher makes a pretty good case that it did, it’s now playing a more supporting role. In the last 40 years or so, Congress has cut back considerably on services and if you’d noticed longer lines at the post office and delays in receiving your mail, that’s why.

Winifred Gallagher:
In my opinion, no one should be mad at the post office. They should be mad at Congress. Congress has prevented the post office from modernizing and running itself efficiently and tragically going digital, which it should have done back in the 80s.

Roman Mars:
Gallagher believes the post office missed an opportunity to facilitate email and other digital communication, but she argues the US postal service probably isn’t on the brink of death, either. Conservatives talk about privatizing the whole operation, but right now Gallagher doubts that this is possible.

Winifred Gallagher:
Actually, the private competitors, neither FedEx or UPS, is equipped to handle the volume of American mail. They would certainly risk bankruptcy if they tried.

Roman Mars:
The post office has an unparalleled delivery infrastructure and employs an enormous workforce, and we still need the service they provide because unlike FedEx and UPS, the US post office cannot pick and choose where they deliver based on profit. It is obliged by law to provide pickups and deliveries to every community in the country, even if that community is located in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

  1. Rob

    This was an interesting story, as always – but I found your confusion between England and Britain really distracting. The “English monarchy” you are referring to has been, since 1603, a British monarchy. England then ceased to exist as a separate state in 1707. To say that “Americans gained independence from England” is just factually incorrect.

    Seriously, saying “England” when you mean Britain or the UK is like saying “California” when you mean the whole USA. I’m not sure why that should be confusing.

  2. Having lived in a village with a winter population of ~200 people where the post office was the hub of village life I really appreciated the show!

    One bit of historical accuracy…there was a note around 3:00 in about the north-south distance in the colonies saying “from New Hampshire down to Georgia”. At that point the distance was technically “Massachusetts down to Georgia” because the Massachusetts colony included a large chunk of what is now Maine. When I was a kid I thought it was weird that the area of southern Maine I grew up in had once been “in” another state that wasn’t even connected on the map (because New Hampshire was in between), it helped spark a lifelong fascination with maps.

  3. Janet H

    Thank you so much for this story! I wrote my thesis on this subject and I’ve found that very few people know the full history of our postal system or the tremendous influence it has had on our country. Access to newspapers and mail delivery has been and will continue to be a social equalizer.

  4. Guru

    Great story! I love the USPS, I’m very grateful to all of the employees who keep the USPS functioning. Logistics are fascinating.

  5. janel

    I really liked this story! My great-great-great-grandfather was the first postmaster in Emery County in rural central Utah, and his daughter was his assistant. Their home, a very small cabin, was the first post office. The cabin is still standing, but has been relocated to This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. I’ve seen it, and it is TINY.

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