The Rural Post Office
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher.
The United States Post Office, for more than two centuries, has been central to holding together rural areas as communities. Gallagher quotes Smithsonian curator, Carl Scheele stating, “The Postal Service is the single institution that has been common to virtually every American’s experience throughout more than 200 years.”
Scheele notes that the most representative, numerous and widespread type of Post Office “has been the country store post office.”
Rural postmasters were often civic leaders in their communities, often owning property and businesses. They were not richly compensated in money from the government, but the post office could act as what we today call “loss leaders.”
A “loss leader” is an enterprise which may not necessarily be profitable on its own, but which brings benefits to the enterprises connected with it. For example, in the 1970’s I tended bar in a top-end fine dining restaurant, The Carrousel in the Radisson-Muehlbach Hotel.
My bar itself was a sort of parking area, a small lounge, for the guests waiting for a table. In the meantime, my working face was also a service area for other restaurants in the hotel.
The entire restaurant itself didn’t always turn a profit. But it more than made up for it as a prestigious way to bring in clients who would be signed up for conventions to book the entire hotel and meeting areas.
Likewise, for a Post Office in the 1800s, as Gallagher writes, “Their real compensation came from the position’s perks: prestige, political clout, the franking privilege, free exchange papers – and especially the increased foot traffic that the post attracted to their primary businesses.”
Abraham Lincoln, at age 24, was postmaster of the general store in New Salem, Illinois from 1833 to 1836. Harry Truman was made postmaster of Grandview, Missouri in 1914 (next to and southeast of Kansas City, Missouri), but Truman gave the job to a widow who needed the income.
The appointment of women to the job of postmaster was spotty. Often, they were supplanted by men in the job. Especially in the cities, despite good to outstanding job performance of women.
In the mid-1800s Postmaster General Cave Johnson was approached by prominent citizens of Columbus, Ohio, to appoint a woman, the widow of the previous postmaster. Despite excellent work records of women as postmasters, Johnson claimed that “the duties required of many of them are many and important and often of a character that ladies could not be expected to perform.”
As the previous postmaster’s widow, it is likely Mrs. Medary was already doing much of the job alongside her husband. Regardless, Johnson appointed Mrs. Medary’s brother in law.
Even so, women could be as tough as needed. And many worked for transportation companies hired to move the mail. In 1860, Gallagher writes, Polly Martin hired on as a teamster for the Star Route. One dark-as-dark night an attacker tried to climb into her wagon. Polly horsewhipped him “until the blood ran down.” The attacker fell under her wagon wheels. Polly remarked, “He had tackled the wrong customer.”
The web of post offices and mail routes also amounted to staking a claim to frontier territory. Newspaper circulation which came with free newspaper delivery, as declared in the Post Office Act of 1792, acted as a glue across that frontier. The mail brought news of loved ones and, in turn, sent news of the west which encouraged more migration.
Rural post offices were not, and are not, the most profitable. A private company, Gallagher notes, would close them down. In 2011, the postmaster put 3,700 offices on the hit list but only closed 140 of them. Postal Unions and angry citizens and legislators complained that the Post Office was not a business as such but more valuable as a public service.
The recent proposal to cut Saturday deliveries is an example. Unions fought for the job loss, while mass mailers fought for the Saturday delivery as advertising to bring in weekend shoppers. The variety of postal delivery situations, from donkeys in the bottom of the Grand Canyon to boat deliveries on the Great Lakes to medicines for the disabled at home, illustrate that broad brush policies won’t work.
Nor does “just privatize” work. Neither UPS nor FedEx can take up the house-to-house delivery. They keep only services which pay well. Besides, both already work with each other. UPS will often send envelopes by USPS and USPS will deliver UPS and FedEx packages, extending the private company’s reach beyond their normal routing into non-profitable areas.
If the mail were handed to independent carriers, they would still need to be subsidized.
That takes us back to the mail as a communications network bringing the nation together from densely packed cities to widely spread-out rural areas.
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club