Early in colonial times, when there was no formal postal organization, Americans put overseas letters, along with money for the mailing service, in leather pouches hung on the walls of taverns by ship captains.
Thirsty but impecunious tavern patrons sometimes looted the pouches for drinking money.
In 1639, the Massachusetts General Court, seeking an official place for the deposit and receipt of letters to and from Europe, names Richard Fairbanks’ Boston tavern. He received 1 cent for each letter.
“According to some historians, this made him the country’s first postmaster.” Writes Mathew J. Bowyer in an interesting, carefully researched new book, “They Carried the Mail: A Survey of Postal History and Hobbies,” Published by Luce. “It was certainly the first postal system legally sanctioned by the colonists.”
The Virginia Colonial Court, in 1657, ordered every planter to carry official dispatches to the next plantation. For each time this was not done there was a penalty of one hogshead of tobacco.
A tobacco hogshead was used in British and American colonial times to transport and store tobacco. It was a very large wooden barrel. A standardized hogshead measured 48 inches (1,219 mm) long and 30 inches (762 mm) in diameter at the head (at least 550 L or 121 imp gal; 145 US gal, depending on the width in the middle). Fully packed with tobacco, it weighed about 1,000 pounds (454 kg).
Mail Service in Virginia
Four years later, the Virginia Assembly directed planters to forward “all letters super-scribed for the service of his majesty or publique.” Failure to comply meant forfeiture of 350 pounds of tobacco. This bought mail service to everyone in the colony, not just the conveyance of letters.
“Postal developments were slow to reach America, despite the fact that letter delivery systems were operating in England and on the continent,” notes Bowyer. “…Mail delivery somehow plodded along until 1753, when Benjamin Franklin, postmaster of Philadelphia since 1737, was appointed by the English as a deputy postmaster general…for all the American colonies.”
Under Franklin there was mail service between New York and Philadelphia three times weekly in the summer and once each week in winter. Also, mail between the colonies and England was sent on a regular schedule. The British fired Franklin in 1774 because they doubted his loyalty to England.
The Continental Congress wanted the nation to have its own mail system and, in 1775, named Franklin as chief of the postal service at a salary of 1,000 a year.
For a while the government did not know whether it should operate mail service, let the states do it or allow it to be taken over by private enterprise. However, in 1792, Congress made the post office a permanent service. Later, postmasters were allowed to recruit mailmen and pay them 2 cents apiece for letters delivered to business establishments.
Meanwhile, the nation’s postal system continued to evolve as had that of many ancient civilizations.
Dispatches written on cloth and papyrus, dating to 3000 B.C., have been found in Egypt Carvings on pyramids of about 1500 B.C. described a mail service of the time.
The Greeks of ancient times had a postal system that involved long distance runners as couriers. One mailman, Philonides, ran 60 miles in nine hours.
Persians Used Head for Secret Messages
The Roman emperors had an official mail service. Letters were inscribed on metal or wax sheets. Words in wax could be changed without much difficulty, so those in metal were thought to be more “authoritative.” The Latin “sine cere” – “without wax” – acquired the meaning of “genuine” and is the source of the word “sincere.”
Cyrus, king of Persia, had a system for sending secret dispatches. The head of a messenger was shaved, and the words were stained onto his scalp. When his hair grew and covered the letter, the courier was displaced to deliver it, presumably being shaved again at the receiving end to reveal the message.
The mail service of another Persian king, Darius the Great, was described by Herodotus, the Greek historian, in the now familiar works: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night says these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Kublai Kan’s Mail System
“In 1100 Kublai Khan established an efficient postal system in China which lasted 600 years,” writes Bowyer. “It was an extension of the system of the days of Confucius, improved by Genghis Khan Kublai’s grandfather. Under Kublai Khan the system encompassed 10,000 post offices, all in communication with each other principally by horseback and occasionally by boat. …”
Methods for sending private mail were in operation in the major part of Europe at the end of the Middle ages.
In London in 1680, William Dockwra, a businessman started a penny post. For 1 cent his firm delivered letters and packages that weighed up to a pound. There were six deliveries daily in the London suburbs and sometimes up to 10 in the city’s business area. After the company began making a profit, the government merged it with the official British post office.
Alexander Greig, in New York City in 1842, started a private mail company called the City Dispatch Post. He made local deliveries for 3 cents and sold his own stamps. The official New York post office lost so much trade to Greig that the government bought his firm, put “United States” in front of the company’s name and continued its operation.
The first US stamps approved by Congress – a 5 cent likeness of Benjamin Franklin and a 10 cent one of George Washing – were issued in 1847.
Balloon was Forced Down
The first attempt in the United Stated to transport mail by air was on the balloon Atlantic July 1, 1859. The balloonist was Prof. John Wise, trying to deliver a pouch of privately mailed letters from St. Louis to New York City. A storm formed down the balloon near Henderson, N.Y. The mail bag, which had been jettisoned, drifted to a beach at Oswego, and the letters were delivered.
“In the late 19th century the railway mail car became the backbone of the American postal system,” notes author Bowyer.”… When road clerks were in their prime, being a postal employee had some hazards it doesn’t have today.”
Mail trains were involved in 248 accidents in 1887, and four clerks were killed and 108 were injured. A total of 193 clerks either died or were seriously hurt in 1889 in railroad mishaps.
“In true pioneer spirit, the road clerks consoled themselves that things were worse in other countries,” writes Boyer. “In 1889, the postmaster general of Bengal Province, India, complained that he couldn’t quite keep things going; man-eating tigers had consumed eight of his carriers during the past year. And in Morocco the 150 miles across mountains, desert sands and bridgeless rivers between Tangier and Fez were crossed on foot in three and a half days. The carriers were issued short lengths of rope where were to be tied to a big toe and ignited when stopping to rest and sleep. This assured that they would be awakened in three hours.”
Airmail Attempt Was a Fiasco
The first US attempt to establish regular mail services with an airplane on May 15, 1918, was a fiasco. These things happened:
- With President Woodrow Wilson watching, the pilot could not get the pane started for its run between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
- It was then discovered that no one had put any gasoline in the aircraft.
- After the open cockpit plane was fueled, its army pilot had to make an emergency landing after 25 miles, breaking the propeller.
- The following day, the plane having been repaired, the pilot tried to finish the flight. However, he became lost, ran out of gasoline and put the aircraft down near the Chesapeake Bay.
- The plane was gassed, and again the pilot headed for New York. However, he cracked up the aircraft close to his destination.
- The mail finally was delivered by truck.
The day before the inaugural flight, the post office issued a special 24 cent stamp, but the Curtiss Jenny biplane on it was printed upside down. Before the error was discovered, 100 of the stamps were bought.
In 1968 a corner block of the upside down stamps brought $100,000. In 1972 each of the stamps is priced at $30,000.