An entertaining history of the post office

post officeFor a guy who made his living for more than thirty years by writing letters and mailing hundreds of millions of copies of them, you might think I’d be familiar with the story of the US Postal Service. Unaccountably, I knew little before I read journalist Devin Leonard’s compact and engaging new popular history, Neither Snow Nor Rain. In this entertaining slice of history, you’ll learn just how significant the post office has been in building the American nation—and how much it has evolved since the days of our first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin.

This post was updated on November 25, 2020.


Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service by Devin Leonard (2016) 288 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


The staggering scope of the US post office

Leonard makes clear at the outset that the post office remains one of the world’s largest business enterprises—the rise of UPS, FedEx, and email notwithstanding. “Six days a week, its 300,000 letter carriers deliver 513 million pieces of mail, more than 40 percent of the world’s volume. . . [T]he USPS delivers more items in nine days than UPS does in a year. It transports more in seven days than FedEx brings to its customers in a year.”

Leonard traces the history of this gargantuan institution from its beginnings in the late eighteenth century through the development of railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, and the Internet—every one of which substantially impacted the fortunes of the USPS. He introduces each one of these technological innovations, and every expansion of the post office, with an anecdote. The result is an eminently readable book. The story of the agency’s attempts to inaugurate air mail is especially entertaining.

“The great link between minds”

In the early years of the Republic, communications were spotty and almost always time-consuming. It could take weeks for a letter or a newspaper to travel from a city in the North to one in the South, or from a city in the East to one in the ever-widening West. Despite the cost, the US Postal Service undertook the challenge to reach every corner of the nation. Alexis de Tocqueville described the post office in the 1820s as “the great link between minds. . . I do not think that so much intellectual activity exists in the most enlightened and populous district in France.” Leonard makes clear what in hindsight seems patently obvious: what was characterized as an “American character” could have emerged only through the linkages established by the postal system.

Fighting tooth and nail to modernize

America’s cantankerous brand of democratic politics has not served the postal system very kindly. Worldwide, despite its enormous size, the USPS stands out as an antiquated institution limited to delivering physical items, mostly letters, by hand. In other industrialized countries, the postal system is involved in a far wider range of activities that make it possible, in some cases, to become extremely profitable. Take, for example, Posti, the Finnish postal system, which (according to Wikipedia) consists of the four following divisions:

  • Postal Services handles the delivery of letters, direct mail, and newspapers and magazines in Finland through its subsidiary Posti Oy.
  • Parcel and Logistics Services offers comprehensive supply chain solutions, parcel and e-commerce services, transport services, international road, air, sea and rail freight services, warehousing or supplementary services and customs clearance services. The company provides global services through its partners.
  • Itella Russia provides logistics services in Russia.
  • OpusCapita provides financial process automation. OpusCapita has operations in eight European countries (Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Sweden) and a network of international partners covering the globe.

Posti may be an extreme example. However, it is a public limited company in some ways similar to the US Postal Service. The difference is that the operations of the USPS are constantly prey to intervention by Congress and vulnerable to massive lobbying efforts by private industry. (The pressure brought to bear by the direct marketing industry to keep bulk postal rates below USPS costs is one egregious example.) Congress has never been willing to grant full autonomy to the post office. As a result, politics has almost invariably frustrated the frequent efforts over the years to modernize the USPS, largely because that would open up competition for private companies. The upshot is well known: in recent decades, the postal service has perennially operated at a deficit.

About the author

Devin Leonard is a business journalist who has worked for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fortune, and The New York Observer. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and many other publications.

For further reading

For an equally entertaining and informative look at a closely related topic, check out The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask (Who knew that street addresses meant so much?).

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