A Good and Faithful Service: A History of Mail in Early America
February 20, 202216 min read
By: Molly Jacobson
In 490 B.C., an unnamed Greek soldier defended his country in the Battle of Marathon and then ran 26 miles to Athens to deliver news of the victory. The devoted courier relayed his message and then dropped dead from exhaustion, having sacrificed his life for the sake of correspondence.
Like the Marathon Man, every messenger is laden with a sacred trust, a promise that he will relay some meaningful missive. Every great society owes much of its success to these messengers, but most especially our own. For only in America was the postal service not established for its rulers, but for its people. In America, mail wasn’t used to censor and subjugate, but to unite and educate.
“There are many factors that combined and unified America. The process was carried on silently, almost in secret, underneath the temporary upheavals in our history. It moved by a chain of paper that transported the elements of Americanism through thousands of miles, across mountains and desert, from city to frontier, a chain stretching into every clearing and valley.”
Lawrence O’Brien, 57th United States Postmaster General
Couriers of Control
For the rulers of the ancient world, mail delivery was just another way to conquer and control. The ability to send written messages facilitated the expansion of empires. King Darius of Persia (550-486 B.C.) sent military orders and decrees through his postmen, scrawled on tablets smeared with wax. Greek historian Herodotus stood in awe of Darius’ system:
“Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers ... these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to do, either by snow, or rain, or head, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light of the torch-race.”
In the first century, the Romans paved roads across their empire from Britain to Constantinople and sent mail via chariot. Besides delivering letters scrawled on papyrus and animal skins, though, Roman couriers also acted as imperial spies. The Roman emperor took advantage of the post’s ability to control his subjects by using his messengers to identify rebels and nip their treasonous activities in the bud. Not only did the postal service point out these insurrectionists, but they were in charge of punishing them, too, typically condemning the agitators to backbreaking drudgery at the post houses. Early Christians frequently fell victim to such misery.
The Dark Ages threatened to extinguish both the written word and the practice of sending it in the mail. The inability to read was a sign of good breeding, a worrisome trend that led to widespread illiteracy. As such, the need for postal delivery was nearly nil. Standing in the way of its extinction were the Catholic monks, who continued writing, reading, translating, and dispatching letters through foot posts.
Fortunately, cultural disregard for the written word was mostly limited to Europe. In China and the Middle East, the postal service thrived. They published the very first postal manual and wrote letters on a wondrous new product: paper. In the 13th century, Chinese mail carriers used a system akin to the Pony Express, only much more luxurious. Chinese highways were dotted with elegant relay stations where postal riders could rest and remount as needed.
By the late 1200s, the European’s innate human need to communicate could be suppressed no longer. Letters to loved ones gushed forth, ink splashing across the page, desperate for a willing hand to carry them to their destinations. The demand for the post was renewed, and correspondence quickly became a significant part of European culture. Beginning in 1297, itinerant butchers, merchants, and even knights passed the mail along as they attended to their business. This system, known as the Strangers’ Post, prevailed until the end of the 15th century, when the Holy Roman Empire appointed its first imperial postmaster.
These new Roman mailmen wore strips of badger skin and announced their arrival by blowing their post horns. Stingy Roman overlords, dismayed by the sky-high cost of sending mail, did something that had never been done before: they opened the post up to the public. By granting the lowly commoner use of the imperial postal system, mail rates were lowered for everyone to enjoy. And so, the flickering flame of enlightenment snuffed out the Dark Ages; one candle lit its neighbor, and soon the whole world was bright again.
In 1516, King Henry VIII ordered the creation of “the King’s Post,” which was England’s first national mail delivery service. It being “the King’s Post,” the king and his officials reserved the right to read all the mail. Missives either passed muster or they didn’t, and the national postal service resumed its role from the old Roman times as national censor. Once again, though, to generate much-needed funds, the royal post aired out its stuffy mailroom and offered its services to the general public. Anyone with two pence could send a letter – or rather, receive one, since addressees were usually the ones who paid for correspondence. The royal mail service was expensive for its patrons, but it funded Britain’s extensive exploits and colonization efforts all over the world. Once their settlements in the New World began to prosper, Britain planned to rake in even more money by establishing a postal branch in the colonies.
A Message and a Bottle
In the early 1600s, colonists had little interest in communicating with each other via mail. Settlements were largely self-contained; if ye goodwife wanted to borrow a cup of sugar or share a morsel of gossip, she only had to walk next door. Colonists longed, however, for news from loved ones across the ocean – people they would likely never see again. The only way to swap stories with their dear ones in the motherland was through the mail.
For a penny a letter, ship captains ferried mail over the ocean and back. So far from family, colonists lived and breathed for notes from home. They waited anxiously for new ships to come to port, hoping for good tidings from across the water. Upon disembarkation, captains dumped off their pouches of precious cargo at taverns or coffee houses. People pawed desperately through the bags, hoping to find a letter or two with their name on it. Colonists then stuffed the captain’s sacks with their return missives, which he would pick up at the tavern before his return journey eastward. What better place to center the envelope exchange than the colonial tavern? Abuzz with the latest news and happenings, most settlers spent a great deal of time there already. In 1639, the British government made it official, christening Richard Fairbanks’ Boston tavern the first sanctioned post office in the New World. The Massachusetts General Court ordained Fairbanks’ tavern as “the place appointed for all letters which are brought from beyond the seas, or are to be sent thither.”
As the colonies grew and flourished, however, the demand for domestic postal service increased, and primitive delivery systems sprang up out of necessity. In 1673, the governor of New York created a monthly post along “the King’s Highway.” This road between New York and Boston remains today and is part of U.S. Route 1. In the southern colonies, planters appointed their most trusted slaves as mail couriers, passing letters along a plantation route of their own design. If a planter dropped the ball and neglected to keep the postal pace, he was fined an entire hogshead of tobacco – equivalent to the price of a good workhorse or a baker’s dozen of swine.
The mother country decided it was time to put an end to the disorder and invest in a more systematic approach. In 1692, Thomas Neale secured an exclusive contract from King William III to launch the first official privately operated postal system in the colonies. Neale was a rather lazy rascal and party boy popular with big-shots in Britain; he used his proximity to the crown to win such a high appointment. Never having been to the New World, though, Neal pawned off his postal responsibilities on New Jersey governor Andrew Hamilton. Unfortunately, the British government had overestimated the colonies’ desire for a countrywide postal service, because the Neale post bit the dust before the turn of the century. Virginia and Maryland had snubbed Neale’s royal post, refusing to pay the crown to deliver the mail when they had been doing it just fine themselves.
Contracting out the mail service hadn’t worked, so the British government took matters into their own hands. Rogue colonies may have resisted the Neale post, but direct opposition to a royally ordained project was more difficult. By 1729, a lethargic but formal postal system connected the colonies. Mail carriers emptied their saddlebags at one of 13 official post offices every week. As the colonies grew, however, so did their need for a better system.
Print-maker, Post-taker, Policy-shaper
In October 1723, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia after fleeing from Boston and his older brother’s frequent beatings. James Franklin operated the print shop where Benjamin was an apprentice, but he had no patience for his younger brother’s antics. Seventeen and penniless, Benjamin found work for a Philadelphia printer, where he apprenticed for five years before striking out on his own. Franklin opened his own print shop and general store, where he peddled everything from powdered mustard to protractors. He also purchased a floundering local newspaper: the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin was a shrewd businessman and witty writer, and his Gazettequickly became a raving success.
At the same time, Andrew Bradford and his American Weekly Mercury was the hottest seller in Philadelphia. Bradford had friends in high places who hooked him up with lucrative government contracts; when he lobbied to be appointed postmaster general, he was a shoo-in. In the 1700s, printer and postmaster were frequently one man, both jobs benefiting each other greatly. Printers could skim the many out-of-town newspapers flying through the post office, reprinting articles of import in their own publications. The post office was also a place where people gathered to gossip. A postmaster with a keen ear and a watchful eye could pick up heaps of hot leads from the masses passing through his mailroom.
Appointing printers as postmasters was the most practical arrangement, but not the most ethical one. In the wrong hands, these dual powers could devastate. The printmaker not only controlled what went in the papers but also what went in the mail. For example, when he was postmaster, Bradford shamelessly and aggressively distributed his own Weekly Mercury but refused to carry any competing publication – especially Franklin’s Gazette.
Bradford was older and more experienced, but Franklin hatched a crackerjack plan to overthrow Philadelphia’s bookish thug. Franklin’s newspaper was better, and his business more frugal. He kept a tidy ledger and cut costs wherever he could, using his pinched pennies to bribe Bradford’s underpaid postal riders. With sufficiently greased palms, the postmen were happy to slip the Gazette in with their other deliveries. Franklin’s tri-fold strategy paid off, and the Weekly Mercury fell into second place despite Bradford’s best efforts to censor the mail.
Yet it appeared Bully Bradford would get his comeuppance after all. By 1737, Bradford was stripped of his role as Philadelphia’s postmaster; the British government didn’t take kindly to missing financial reports. Then, in a swift twist of the knife, they appointed Franklin in his place. Franklin mused,
“I accepted it readily ... and found it of great advantage for, though the salary was small, it facilitated the correspondence that improved my newspaper, increased the number demanded, as well as the advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a considerable income. My old competitor’s paper declined proportionately.”
Of course, in true patriot style, Franklin took the high road and graciously allowed his postmen to continue to distribute the Weekly Mercury. The British government eventually put a stop to that, though, too; Bradford still hadn’t paid his debts to the crown, and they wouldn’t allow him to take advantage of their postal system until he had done so.
Franklin proved to be such a promising young postmaster that the British promoted him to the comptroller of the whole colonial postal system. In addition to his duties as Philadelphia’s postmaster, Franklin managed the finances of all 13 American post offices. Postal carriers under his leadership trekked all over from Portsmouth to Charleston, steadfastly delivering the mail across more than 1500 miles of rugged terrain.
Because of his incredible business acumen, Franklin was able to retire comfortably in his early 40s – from his print shop, that is. He refused to give up his post office gig. After all, it was not strenuous work, he enjoyed the benefits (free mail!), and he had big plans for America’s fledgling postal service. In 1748, mail service was intermittent and unpredictable in the colonies. Carriers delivered mail in the larger cities once a week in the summer and every other week in the winter. If the weather was bad or the roads impassable – as was common in the south – colonists got mail even less often. Franklin wondered: instead of a helter-skelter smattering of disjointed post offices, what if the colonies could be united by an efficient national postal service dedicated to serving its people? Franklin sought to design just such an institution, which would provide the infrastructure for improved communications everywhere.
In 1753, thanks to much lobbying and a little bribery, Franklin was appointed deputy postmaster to the crown in charge of the colonies. He had to share the job with another printer-postmaster from Virginia, William Hunter. The two got along famously, though (likely because Hunter allowed Franklin to take the lead), and together they upgraded the American mail service from primitive post to orderly express. Since the Neale Post, the royal mail had been hemorrhaging money, but Franklin and Hunter were keen to change that; their salaries depended on it. They were each promised 300 pounds in exchange for their service to the crown, but since that money was to be dispensed from the colonial post’s profits, they wouldn’t see a penny of it if they couldn’t bring the office’s finances out of the red.
Franklin and Hunter struck out on a yearlong journey to take stock in the current postal system. They toured post offices and surveyed their riders’ roads. They drew out more convenient routes, promising safer work for their riders and faster delivery for their patrons. The co-deputies’ efforts resulted in faster mail delivery than ever before. Letters soared from Philadelphia to New York in only a day and a half, and mail made the round-trip from Philadelphia to Boston and back again in a mere three weeks (six weeks was the current record).
The new improvements weren’t limited to better routes and speedier service, however. Franklin also established the “Dead Letter Office.” By building a designated place for Philadelphia’s stash of unclaimed mail, Franklin saved the postal carriers from pointlessly toting around cumbersome bags of excess mail. In addition, Franklin’s idea for the “Penny Post” brought in heaps of money for the indebted institution. For an extra penny, Philadelphia postmen delivered mail straight to their patron’s residences, saving them the time and the trip to the post office. Perhaps the most important and unique improvement, however, was the decision to distribute all kinds of newspapers. European posts were highly selective of the papers they would circulate, but evidently, Franklin believed America should enjoy a more free and varied press.
Franklin and Hunter took a gamble on a failing system, borrowing triple their hoped-for salaries to pay for these changes. Fortunately, their risk was rewarded; the previously stunted postal service thrived on their improvements. Colonial post offices burst into a flurry of activity, hurtling letters and missives from Maine to Virginia and back again, faster than ever before. Sweethearts sent twice as many love letters as before, buoying their intendeds’ spirits from hundreds of miles away. Merchants received requests for goods twice as fast, speeding up the market for consumer goods in America. Businessmen in New York pocketed payment for their goods and services twice as often, bolstering their balance sheets. The ripples from the deputies’ dedicated work reached far and wide; Franklin rode these waves all the way across the pond, where he took up his steady post lobbying the British government to allow the Colonies more freedom to self-govern.
In 1761, William Hunter died, and John Foxcroft took his place as co-deputy of the Colonial post. Franklin returned to America, and he and Foxcroft set out to improve the post even more. The colonies had continued to expand, so the gentlemen once again toured the postal route from north to south. Yet again, Franklin and Foxcroft managed to quicken the pace of deliveries by adding night riders. Round-trip communications between Philadelphia and New York took only 24 hours; the Puritans’ prayers could hardly have flown faster.
In 1763, Franklin and Foxcroft made sure settlers in newly-acquired Canada enjoyed access to the postal service as well; they appointed Hugh Finlay Canadian postmaster and gave him the job of carving out a postal route between Albany and Montreal. The co-deputies then made Finlay the official postal surveyor. In 1772, Finlay embarked on a journey similar to Franklin’s and Hunter’s twenty years earlier, in search of safer, faster postal routes through the colonies. The local natives guided Finlay on his mission; New England’s early postal carriers trod on trails blazed by Abenaki moccasins.
In the early 1770s, the relationship between the crown and its colonies grew especially tense. Finlay had the misfortune of being a Loyalist, which gave him a great deal of trouble as he attempted to do his surveying for the post office. His appearance at a colonist’s doorstep roused thick disdain, despite the fact that improved roads and mail service would bring countless benefits to most Americans. Finlay lamented that anyone who welcomed him “would draw on himself the odium of his neighbours and be mark’d as the friend of Slavery and oppression and declar’d enemy to America.”
Many colonists adamantly opposed the establishment of a new postal route, especially one regulated by the crown. In his journal, Finlay notes the settler’s opposition: “(They believe it would) reduce the value of lands, for this reason, they will not encourage the settlement of the East by opening roads.” Instead of supporting Britain’s attempts at a postal institution, American patriots simply used their own system. Despite being unpredictable and inefficient, it was better than allowing their communications to be controlled by the crown. If a person was picking up his own mail at the local tavern, he would go ahead and pick up his whole neighborhood’s post as well. A frustrated Finlay fumes, “There are two Post offices in New Port, the King’s and Mumfords (a resident) ... it is common for people who expect letters by Post finding none at the Post office to say, ‘well there must be letters, we’ll find them at Mumfords.’ It is next to impossible to put a stop to this practice in the present universal opposition to every thing connected with Great Britain.”
In 1774, Franklin was dismissed as deputy postmaster to the colonies due to his involvement with the rebellious patriots. In response, a seething letter was published in the Public Advertiser: “You may depend on it, the Americans will immediately set up a carrier of their own ... and thereby they will entirely starve your Post ... and thus will happily end your boasted Post Office.” The note was signed “A Pennsylvanian,” but some speculate that it may have been Franklin himself who sent it. The letter goes on to say that Britain’s loss would be America’s great gain, for who better to design a postal system for the patriots?
The “Pennsylvanian” was spot on in his predictions. Once the beloved Franklin no longer headed up the postal service, bourgeoning discontent for British institutions exploded. It was open season on royal postal riders. The Sons of Liberty ambushed them along their routes and ransacked their pouches, hoping to intercept some intelligence of import. William Goddard fanned the flames by establishing the Constitutional Post. The people were thrilled to have a patriotic alternative to crown-controlled mail and wholeheartedly jumped ship to adopt the “New American Post Office.” Evidently, Franklin’s dismissal was the straw that broke the Royal Post’s back. One of Goddard’s supporters explains, “The people never liked the institution ... and only acquiesced in it out of their unbounded affection for the person (Franklin) that held the office and who had taken infinite pains to render it convenient.”
Shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War, delegates at the Second Continental Congress began to devise a plan for their new government. They named the Constitutional Post the official American post office and appointed its officers: Franklin was the United States’ first postmaster general, Richard Bache (Franklin’s son-in-law) was his comptroller, and Goddard became surveyor of postal roads.
First used primarily for war correspondence, the new postal service was critical to the patriots’ cause. Even during the war, mail was safer and more private than it had been under British control; postal carriers had to swear to keep their mail under lock and key. This was especially important given the sensitive information they shuttled between Congress and military leaders. One message in the enemy’s hands could bring devastation to the young nation. Keenly aware of this danger, John Adams admitted to his wife, Abigail, “I send you regularly every Newspaper, and write as often as I can – but I feel more skittish about writing than I did, because … the Post I am not quite confident in, However I shall write as I can.”
The Adams’ bemoaned the lack of regular, predictable post. Forced to rely on trusted friends passing though, their communications became rather few and far between, which was quite devastating for a pair whose marriage was held together largely by postage stamps. On one occasion, Abigail hadn’t heard from John for over a month. She writes, “My anxious foreboding Heart fears every Evil, and my Nightly Slumbers are tortured.” After finally receiving word from her husband, Abigail’s relief is evident: “My Heart is as light as a feather and my Spirits are dancing. I received this afternoon a fine parcel of Letters and papers by Coll. Thayer, it was a feast to me.” Nevertheless, Abigail admonishes, “Believe you may venture letters safely by the post. Mine go that way, and for the future I will send to the post office for yours.”
While this may have been true of the Massachusetts post, it wasn’t universal. Fiery Irish-American Patriot Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne wrote to Franklin in 1776. Wayne implored him to provide for the Continental soldiers, begging for shoes, stockings, and, most importantly, safe passage for the post.
“Through the medium of my Chaplain I hope this will find you, as he has promis’d to blow out the Brains of the Man who will attempt to take it from him.”
Evidently, “Mad Anthony” was frustrated by the inability to send and receive his mail through the post. He goes on:
“Private, as well as publick letters (such as come to hand) we Receive Open, the Contents exposed to every Rascal whose Curiosity, or a worse and more Villainous motive induces to read; thro’ this means the Enemy undoubtedly gain every Intelligence they can wish, and we have ground to believe that not more than one in ten of our letters come to us at all … the State of Massts. Bay has Established a post to this place and all letters carried free to the Army…can’t you procure a Similar one to pass in our State, or are we less worthy than the Gentlemen from the Eastward? Be that as it may, an Inquiry into the cause of this shameful Conduct in some of the Different posts or Offices is a matter not to be neglected, as it may in the end be attended with bad and fatal Consequences.”
Ever aware of the danger of these “bad and fatal consequences,” the founding fathers vigilantly nurtured their new American postal service. When Franklin died in 1790, the United States boasted 75 post offices and 1,875 total miles of postal roads along the Atlantic coast. George Washington carried on Franklin’s legacy mission to leave no settlement unconnected. He supervised the westward expansion of the post office: as brave settlers moved west, so did their mail.
Today, the United States Postal Service delivers nearly 500 million pieces of mail per day. As our tens of thousands of postal workers travel their routes, no doubt the original postmaster general looks down upon each and every one with pride, declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Deborah Sampson was a tall, somewhat plain-looking weaver and schoolteacher from Middleborough, Massachusetts, who had disguised herself as “Robert Shurtliff” and served with an infantry company in the final months of the Revolutionary War. Twice wounded in combat, she served undiscovered until a serious illness sent her to a hospital ward in Philadelphia, where her secret was soon revealed.
If I asked you when the first battle of the American Revolution occurred, you’d likely mention the Boston Massacre, picturing British soldiers firing indiscriminately into a crowd of innocent colonists. What you might not know is that Paul Revere, who is more commonly known for his “midnight ride” or career as a silversmith, actually popularized this picture as a kind of propaganda against the British influence in the colonies.