Be thankful you’ve got the U.S. mail

“How the Post Office Created America — A History” by Winifred Gallagher (The Penguin Press, 326 pages, $28).

Over the dozen years I have been reviewing books here I cannot recall ever covering a book that I believed should be read by all well informed Americans. I have finally found such a book. In my opinion Winifred Gallagher’s “How the Post Office Created America — A History” should be required reading for all of us who care about how the United States came to be this great nation.

The revelations contained in this postal history are astonishing. It is essential for us to know the history of the United States Post Office for us to comprehend the challenges the U.S. Postal Service faces now.

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Before the American Revolution you could mail letters but it was expensive. Benjamin Franklin and some of the other Founding Fathers understood the value of building a wide ranging and efficient Post Office.

Post offices began to spring up all over. They were centers for commerce, the growth of towns and the roads linking them. The infrastructure and the transport systems that were built to forge connections across the wilderness were initially put into place so that the mail could be delivered.

The author shows us that the men who built this postal delivery grid were visionary. There was a desire to have an informed electorate, an educated population that was aware of the world around them. During the early days of the Post Office in America the cost to mail a letter remained high while the rates to mail newspapers and other periodicals was set quite low.

These early pricing structures facilitated the growth of newspapers across the land. Newspapers enjoyed wide readerships. Their publishers thrived. Expensive letter rates made up for the subsidies periodicals received. Foreign visitors to the United States during the early 19th century were often astonished to encounter Americans living in rural areas who knew exactly what was going on in our cities and even in the nations of Europe.

Did you know that the development of our transportation system was directly linked to the growth of the Post Office? Gallagher shows us how stagecoach lines, railroads and the airline industry were all the beneficiaries of the belief that the mail must go through and that regardless of the barriers and impediments they had to overcome: rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, deserts, hostile tribes, bad weather — those precious letters must be delivered.

We revisit the glory days of the Post Office. During the 19th century the high rate for mailing a letter was reduced. People could mail letters for pennies — this engendered a letter writing explosion. The development of Parcel Post service sparked an immense growth in commerce. Urban dwellers received multiple mail deliveries daily.

Clerks processing mail in moving railway cars sorted the mails quickly and efficiently. There are many fabulous stories here. One involves the aviation hero and former mail pilot Charles Lindbergh.

We learn about some bad decisions, blunders, missed opportunities, and the challenges this crucial service faces. Did you know that as first class letter volume has declined that the Postal Service has experienced immense growth in the shipping of packages? Please read this book.

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