The United States Postal Service
In Genealogies of the Experimental, we have explored how technological change leads to innovation in media and the arts. Further, we have examined how such changes in communications and technology interact with culture at large.
In this blog, I will examine the United States Postal Service (USPS), locating its history within a framework of changing technology, communication, and cultural norms.
Throughout its history, the postal system has evolved along with the varying tools of modernity to provide channels of communication for the American people. It’s own trajectory is circumscribed within American history and identity.
Today, the USPS finds itself in a moment of crisis, which may very well lead to its ultimate demise. This crisis has a very complicated relationship with both American politics and our current moment of technological rupture as we descend further into the electronic era.
As a threatened medium of communication, I will use our Postal Service as a window into the history and current culture of media. Further, I will explore the ways in which social media and new technology are being utilized to save the threatened system of old.
The American postal system has existed as long as the nation itself. Having grown exponentially, today’s USPS is the world’s largest retail network and delivers more than 40% of all mail across the globe. Those who comprise this service are part of the world’s largest civilian fleet.
The United States Postal Service was originally founded as the U.S. Post Office Department in 1775. Benjamin Franklin served as the first Postmaster General, which was regarded as a most prestigious position.
The Founding Fathers viewed the Post Office as essential to the fledgling nation’s success:
“Franklin and his fellow compatriots saw a robust mail system as critical to the nation’s welfare.
A healthy postal network facilitated communication among army commanders and the first elected representatives, and representatives and their constituents.”
–Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly,
a publication of The United States Postal Service, 2006.
Perhaps the most crucial role of the postal service at this time was the delivery of newspapers. Newspapers and pamphlets were the primary means of political communication. As the new democratic experiment began, active circulation of such materials was deemed essential to creating an informed and engaged electorate.
The Post Office kept prices for newspaper delivery particularly low in order to encourage such discourse. Newspaper printers could exchange materials free of postage, and citizens could receive newspapers for less than two cents (a mere fraction of the cost to send a letter). As a result of such low postage, newspapers thrived in America. Alexis de Tocqueville described, “in America, there is scarcely a hamlet that has not a newspaper.” Sure enough, by 1840, the United States was home to more newspapers than any other country, in spite of its youth as a nation.
The delivery of mail was integral to the creation of what Juergen Habermas calls “the public sphere.” Having shared information and formed opinions, the electorate could then gather and enter into a political discourse. All citizens had access to the information necessary to participate in these conversations. Habermas argues that such political discourse in the public sphere is essential to democracy.
The Postal Service was designed to be democratic in its very functionality, as well, reaching every American citizen.
“The postal service is an institution that reaches every American on a regular basis, and it does not discriminate. All Americans are entitled to receive the same service. It is irrelevant whether they are rich or poor, rural or urban, black or white, young or old: all Americans are equal in the eyes of the Postal Service.”
– Christopher Shaw, Preserving the People’s Post Office, 2006.
The universal reach of the Post Office is at the very core of its identity. This required that the Post Office Department establish a postal monopoly in America, pushing out all competitors from the private sector.
As early as 1777, legislation was passed to establish this monopoly and firmly locate it within government control. The Articles of Confederation decreed that “Congress assembled shall… have the sole and exclusive right and power of establishing and regulating post offices.” Further legislation protected the postal services’ established routes, the post roads, by outlawing any private carriage of letters or packets. With the incorporation of mailboxes, a law was passed in 1934 stating that only postal employees could place objects in private mailboxes. Collectively, such legislation comprised the Private Express Statutes and allowed for the creation of a vast postal monopoly.
Part 2: Postal Reform in an Expanding Republic
As America grew, the Post Office followed suit, both in scope of reach and institutional roles.
An increasing desire for personal correspondence led to a demand for postal reform. The high cost of mailing a personal letter, as compared to receiving a newspaper, prevented casual correspondence. In 1845, the Post Office reduced costs in order to provide more affordable service. On average, this reform reduced the cost of mailing a letter by two-thirds. Mailing a letter from Baltimore to New York cost eighteen cents previously; after reform, the price was reduced to five cents.
The 1845 postal reform passed just in time for a moment of great westward expansion. In 1848, the Mexican-American War concluded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding much of Mexico’s territory to the United States. America gained its Southwestern corner, from Texas to California, as well as parts of Wyoming and Colorado. Nearly simultaneous was the discovery of gold in California. Presented with new land and opportunity, the American population looked west. This moment of migration solicited postal expansion:
“California’s population exploded, and so did the need for connecting
this population with the rest of the country- through the U.S. Mail.“
With an ever increasing demand for personal correspondence, further postal reform followed. Uniform pricing was introduced, supporting an increasingly mobile population.
“Uniform postage allowed Americans to imagine that they might be able to travel (and even relocate) without severing their existing social and familial ties.” – David Henkin, The Postal Age, 2006.
Postal reform helped to secure the American government’s delivered monopoly. With westward expansion, private carriers such as the Pony Express sought to seize opportunity and create competitive delivery services: maintaining affordable prices allowed the Post Office to assert dominance.
However, the Pony Express is one private entity that ultimately played a crucial role in postal history, collaborating with the Post Office to provide high-speed service to the west.
These carriers are forever embedded in the cultural consciousness, emblematic of the American cowboy. Continuously revived and transformed in folklore, these young men have become one of our greatest cultural ideals.
Quite frankly, their legacy far surpasses the extent of the overall service provided. The Pony Express existed but for eighteen months, dismantling with the 1861 establishment of the Transcontinental Telegraph system. Soon thereafter, railway mail service hastened delivery in the 1870s. However, the service’s ephemerality only adds to the mystique when considering the lasting legacy in American representational culture.
Another innovation of the mid-nineteenth century was the home delivery of mail. Beginning in cities in 1863, the first salaried letter-carriers began to traverse neighborhoods, stopping at each door in order to hand deliver the mail. Before this reform, all mail traveled from one post office to the next. Rural home delivery began in 1893, delivering to forty-one million American citizens. In 1893, these forty-one million rural residents comprised forty percent of the population.
An additional way that the Post Office maintained its postal monopoly amidst expansion was by continuing to define its territory and punish infringements. Interestingly, the Post Office created its own specific definition of a letter, clarifying what constituted their trade. The Post Office defined a letter as being “a message from the sender to the addressee… The substance and not the form is determinative.”
“Whether in English, a foreign language, by code, a system of checking from printed statements, punching holes, point print, or raised characters used by the blind: the message is construed to be a ‘letter.'”
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of media by which men communicate than by the content of communication.”
-Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1964.
To be sure, the Post Office’s definition of a letter is a working definition, intended for practical application. McLuhan, on the other hand, describes a broader philosophical view. However, I do find this discrepancy interesting and perhaps revealing of a generational divide in cultural belief regarding media.
The Post Office definition of a letter was modified once, in 1974. The revised definition clarified that, in order to qualify as “letter,” the message in question must exist as a tangible object.
Part 3: Parcel Post and the Chicago Mail Order Houses
In 1913, Parcel Post was introduced as a means of affordably shipping packages to any American address. Parcel Post was particularly significant in rural America. Suddenly those living on farmland had access to urban merchandise without travel.
The introduction of Parcel Post led the Chicago Mail Order Houses to flourish in unprecedented ways. The competing merchandise businesses in Chicago, Ward’s and Sears, were both offered to the American public by catalog. Aaron Montgomery Ward created his mail-order business in 1872. In a catalog of more than 150 pages, Ward’s “offered everything from clothing to saddles to steam engines.”
– Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly, 2006.
The competing Sears catalog was founded in 1893, quickly challenging Ward’s catalog. Both businesses were incredibly successful prior to the introduction of the Parcel Post. However, this more affordable shipping option transformed both mail order businesses and the receiving society. Further, Parcel Post extended mail order purchasing to the farthest reaching corners of America.
Parcel Post had “an electric effect on the nation’s economy.” In the ensuing year, Sears filled five times as many orders as the year previous. In the first six months alone, three hundred million packages were mailed via Parcel Post. In an America of 97 million citizens, such mail traffic was incredible.
Of course, this may well demonstrate the cementation of American consumerism. In later years, American consumerism came under scrutiny and was prone to critique. This very consumerism continues- and continues to be examined- today.
Part 4: The Identity Crisis Begins
Unrest in the Post Office Department came to the forefront in the 1960s. Across America, postal workers went on strike, most significantly in 1970. Postal workers protested both wages and working conditions. Further, the labor force felt crippled by a lack of collective bargaining rights.
As the turmoil with the Post Office Department came under public scrutiny, management began evaluating how their current structure might be reorganized. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the Kappel Commission to assess the Department. The Commission’s recommendations then became the basis for the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act.
Much of the postal services’ current conundrum can be dated to this historic moment. The Kappel Commission was forced to consider one of the post office’s greatest quandaries: its need to be a self-sustaining institution while providing universal service. The Department has never been particularly lucrative, operating in the red nearly every year from 1866-1910. However, due to careful budgeting, the service has always been able to maintain operations and remain self-sustaining. Public service was always deemed more important than creating revenue, as the post office has always been crucial to American infrastructure.
The Kappel Commission was largely comprised of leading corporate figures. Its director, Frederick Kappel, was AT&T’s recently retired chairman. Kappel’s fundamental expertise was grounded in finance and the corporate world. The conceivable link was his work for a communications company, though “[he] had admittedly little knowledge about mail delivery operations” (Sanburn). Given those who made up the Commission, their recommendation bears little surprise. As paramount advisory, they decreed:
“The post office is a business and should be run like a business.”
They continued on to detail the ways in which the post office might increase revenue. This was ultimately deemed more important than enhancing its role as a public service.
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 created the new United States Postal Service, replacing the former Post Office Department. This new service retained much of the old structure while integrating the Kappel Commission’s recommendations. Journalist Mark Sanburn asserts that this legislation “essentially turned the postal service into a quasi-governmental organization- not really a business, but not really a part of the government either.”
One significant result of the Postal Reorganization Act was that the newfound service enjoyed increased freedom to make its own business decisions. The Postal Rate Commission (now known as the Postal Regulatory Commission) was created as a separate entity to handle rate-setting. However, decision-making remained a most complicated and fragmented activity. The dual-identity postal service is simply spread too thin between Congress, PRC, service administration, and unions. Consensus is rare to be found, and overarching orders often originate amongst remote echelons, infuriating those invested in the core infrastructure and service.
Mark Jamison, a Postmaster of more than 30 years, describes his impression of the 1970 Reorganization:
“The Postal Service became nothing other than a business proposition…
It began thinking differently.”
Part 5: The Contemporary Crisis
This past month, the Postal Service reported a record loss of $15.9 billion for this past fiscal year.
After a precipitous decline, these losses are the most significant to date, triple those of the year previous. The New York Times reported that these losses brought “the financially troubled agency another step closer to insolvency.”
This crisis is the result of recession, managerial failure, political jeopardy, and declining mail volumes. In response, an atmosphere of panic draws the agency closer to the brink with apocalyptic projections, quickly becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Following the Postal Reorganization Act, the postal service experienced decades of slowing growth. Unprecedented threats from the private sector threatened its monopoly. All the while, new means of communications challenged the role of the letter. The Postal Service has been ineffective in its response to these new threats. Ultimately, many of the issues that emerged in 1970 remain resonant: the postal service is plagued by its own dichotomy in identity. As it vacillates between business and public service models, its management founders and is unable to innovate.
Upon reported volume losses, the Government Accountability Office placed the Postal Service on the list of high-risk agencies in 2001. Under President George Bush, a Commission examined the Service in 2002. At that time, the postal service was not in the dire straits it faces now, though the other technology had already presented initial challenges. The Postal Service officially acknowledged:
“The post office has faced increasing competition, both indirect and direct, for its core service- delivering the mail. Media such as telephones, television, faxes, the Internet, and email increasingly provide alternatives to hard-copy mail.”
However, the situation appeared to have evened out following the President’s Commission and the resulting Postal Service Transformation Plan.
The most recent and precipitous decline was ushered in by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. This legislation ordered the postal service to pre-fund pension benefits for 75 years through $5.5billion annual installments. Such a mandate is unprecedented for a government agency, not to mention a self-sustaining entity that receives no tax dollars. To understate the case, this legislation hobbled the service. At a moment when the postal service must respond to technological change with innovation, the resulting budget crisis prevents all forward movement.
Adding salt to the wound, the recession resulted in further mail volume declines. A major factor was the decrease in mail-delivered advertising material, shrinking as businesses tightened their belts further.
In 2011, the postal service defaulted on their payments to the U.S. Treasury. This default only worsened an already catastrophic scenario: with public default, the atmosphere of crisis began to spiral out of control within management and media. As doubts regarding the post office’s solvency and relevance percolate, the situation only grows more grim.
The media has added fuel to the fire, elucidating “an endless stream of overwrought claims of impending disaster.” Reporters intensively honed in on the 2011 default, though the vast majority of stories neglect the broader trajectory, located with a historical perspective. The postal service is depicted as outdated, irrelevant infrastructure based on the printed object, utterly out of water in today’s electronic era.
Interestingly, print journalism faces a similar challenge. Furthermore, early American history highlights the intertwining of media and mail. A post office’s first task was to disseminate newspapers. This collaboration fostered America’s political discourse and the growth of democracy.
Like the postal system, print journalism is threatened by electronic communications. However, newspapers have continued to innovate, though trials and tribulations abound. To be fair, the postal service’s job may be more complex than that of the newspaper in entering a digital world. However, the service itself has been entirely unable to enter the conversation and innovate accordingly, largely due to political and fiscal constraints.
The post office has evolved throughout American history in all its technological permutations. Telegraph, railway, automobile, and airplane are all embedded in the postal past.
“Electronic communication, the Internet, cell phones, and all other modern means of moving information have challenged the postal system. But the postal network had adapted to technological change before and remained not only relevant but an important driver in the utility and productivity of new technologies.”
-Mark Jamison, recently retired Postmaster
Unfortunately, today’s postal service seems devoid of this spirit of change, the ability to embrace and collaborate with new technology. The reasons seem largely external to the system itself: bureaucracy and political stalemate inhibit systematic changes. Not only have such difficulties prevented transformation, they have robbed the institution of any opportunity to contemplate experimentation or expansion. The Postal Service has been shackled by all legislation regarding its duties since the beginning of the twenty-first century. The United States Postal Service is on the decline because of changes in media- but even more significantly, because of how these shifts changed social and governmental views regarding their relevance.
Part 6: Social Media as Response
Ironically, social media and new technologies have become crucial in the battle to save the United States Postal Service. In particular, blogging has become essential to the movement. Through certain “hub” sites, such as http://www.savethepostoffice.com a network of concerned parties can gather, perusing materials and disseminating opinions.
This is particularly significant for the most immediately threatened community: rural America. Those in rural areas can participate in this discourse as actively as any Manhattanite, engaging in convenient and pertinent conversation.
In the past, this sense of connection relied upon the postal system. Though the result was different, the desire to communicate was the same. This sort of political discourse and community organizing, part of the public sphere, was established by post.
Dependent upon contemporary media, the means of communicating have changed. However, it proves a most intriguing, circuitous route to trace rural home delivery to such blog posts as below:
Of course, even the word “irony” is misleading in describing this phenomenon: as discussed, the issues that threaten the postal service reach beyond electronic communications and new media. However, these means of communication are pitted as enemy to snail mail. For post office champions to utilize blogging so intensively reveals a most fascinating and complicated reality.
It begs further questions: must the media be pitted against one another? Must the print and electronic exist as enemies?
Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell have both waged arguments as to the role of social media in contemporary activism, outlining their observed strengths and failures.
The community utilizing social media to save the post office prove a most interesting paradigm. This community tends to be highly engaged and participatory. Their greatest difficulty lies within outreach: how to discuss the issues at stake with those who are not already concerned? How to access the populace that is not searching Google engines for ways to save the post office? It is ultimately a most dedicated and insular community.
This community seems to disprove Malcolm Gladwell’s charges of social media “slacktivism.” In a 2010 edition of The New Yorker, Gladwell published Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Retweeted. This article recalled the activism of the civil rights era, describing its high-risk tactics. He argued that the low-risk nature of social media led to a less involved activist community. Last, he wagered that the lack of established hierarchies created a lack of accountability: “Wikipedia doesn’t have an editor waiting in New York.”
The blogging community that has gathered in defense of the post office tends to be highly involved and organized. Seemingly liberated by relaxed hierarchies, voices other than established journalists, such as postal workers themselves, have been able to contribute. Each blog is run by an editor that monitors material. In the example of savethepostoffice.com, an NYU literature professor named Steve Hutkins coordinates the site.
Ultimately, social media has become an essential tool for organizing within this movement, following in the post office’s footsteps to create the American public sphere.
My interest in the post office began because of the parallels to my own field. It seemed a haunting metaphor for dying media and our changing world.
Of course, as I investigated further, I learned of the complicated politics and legislation involved; the problems of management and institutional identity. The story is clearly more complex than the death of print.
And yet I think that remains close to the core of the issue. Notions regarding the death of print permeate this web beyond actual measures of mail volume. Culture, capital, politics, and communications prove inextricably intertwined. Ultimately, this demonstrates much of what we have examined in Genealogies of the Experimental: media, technology, and culture interact in complicated ways, shaping what we believe and how we communicate.
My ongoing photographic project in response to this issue can be viewed on my website:
(listed American Route I & II)