Postal Service Grows Rapidly
Early Days Fraught With Discouragements and Tribulations
Rates of the Long Ago Were Unusually High
Horse, Stage and Sailing Packet Used in Transporting Mail

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, November 10, 1913 [p. 11]

There is no branch of the general government or that of older countries which has grown more rapidly than our own postal service, over which Postmaster General Burleson has supervision with an army of employes numbering thousands. While this service has made prodigious progress in the last hundred years it is interesting to relate the conditions of its early years to one hundred years ago.

The present service was established soon after the Constitution went into effect and in its first year the number of post offices was but seventy-five and its mail route was less than two thousand miles, over which the mails were carried by horse, stage and sailing packet. At present there are over sixty thousand post offices, the number have been reduced from nearly seventy thousand within the past few years through the establishment of rural routes. The number of original post offices in 1790 was increased by 1813 to over twenty-seven hundred and fifty.

Ancient Systems
In ancient times the government established posts through which it communicated orders, etc., but no means were provided for the communications of private citizens. In the reign of Henry III, 1216 to 1272, the English introduced a system from Italy, and letters were forwarded by messengers in royal livery, but it was not until the sixteenth century the office of master of posts was created by Henry VIII. In 1710, under Queen Anne, a general post office was established in London, which included those in the colonies under a postmaster general.

Previously, however, in 1672, Gov. Loveless organized a monthly mail between New York and Boston, and later the post office was established in Philadelphia, from which weekly mail was received and sent. In 1700 authority was given to establish post offices and routes in America, but in 1710 the American post offices were consolidated with those of the old country, and later there were offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Annapolis. In 1737 Benjamin Franklin became the postmaster in Philadelphia, and he was also employed in regulating the several offices of the colonies. In 1753 he was one of the deputy postmasters general for the colonies and he remained in that office until 1774, when he was dismissed for his adherence to the cause of the colonies.

Congress Starts System
In 1775 the Continental Congress established a postal system of its own, to the head of which Franklin was appointed, but soon after he was called on for diplomatic duties abroad. His son-in-law, Richard Bache, took his place.

Under the Constitution Congress had the power to establish post offices and post roads. During the continental government the receipts of all the post offices did not exceed $35,000, and in 1789, $10,000 less. September 22, 1789, Congress passed an act for the temporary establishment of the post office and for the appointment of a Postmaster General, with clerks and deputies. Four days after Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts was appointed to that position, who selected as his assistants Jonathan Burrall and Sebastian Bauman of New York and Robert Patton of Philadelphia, postmasters, Mr. Burrall was dispatched south to reappoint postmasters, etc.

Nearby Offices Established
February 20, 1792, an act was passed establishing post offices and roads within the United States, and the offices named in the act, in this vicinity, were Elkton, Charlestown, Havre de Grace, Harford, Baltimore, Annapolis, Bladensburg, Georgetown, Upper Marlboro, Piscataway, Port Tobacco, Athens Fresh, Chaptico and Leonardtown in Maryland and Alexandria, Colchester, Dumfries, Fredericksburg, Bowling Green, Hanover Courthouse, RIchmond and Petersburg in Virginia.

The act authorized contracts for not exceeding eight years for the establishment of a general post office under a Postmaster General and assistant, provided for the punishment of those obstructing the mails and for the negligence of ferrymen, and fixed the salary of the Postmaster General at $2,000 per annum and his assistant at $1,000.

High Rate of Postage
The postage on each letter for a distance not exceeding thirty miles was 6 cents, and for any distance over 450 miles, 25 cents. Punishment was prescribed for detaining, delaying or secreting letters by fine not exceeding $300 or imprisonment of not over six months, or if any letters containing a bank note, bill of exchange, etc., were taken the punishment was death, as was the case for robbing the mails of any carrier. Newspapers were to pay 1 cent for less than a hundred miles and 1-1/2 cents if over, and for the detention, delay, embezzlement or destruction of any paper a fine of not over $50 was provided.

The Postmaster General should give further allowance for extra services and no compensation to a postmaster was to exceed $1,800. During Washington’s administration Mr. Osgood served as Postmaster General till his resignation in 1791, when he was succeeded by Timothy Pickering of Pennsylvania. The number of post offices had by this time increased to eighty-nine, the amount of postage from $37,000 to $46,000, but the increase in mail routes was only about twenty-five miles.

Osgood Makes Complaint
Mr. Osgood, who made a number of suggestions for the improvement of the service, complained that postage was too high, the letting of contracts was defective and that the post riders, especially south of Alexandria, had no regular schedules. Mr. Barrett continued as assistant under Mr. Pickering, the latter serving until 1795. The number of offices had by this time increased from 76 to 453, the routes from 2,000 miles to over 13,000, the income from $25,000 to over $100,000, and the compensation of the postmasters was over $30,000. The transportation of the mails had run up to over $75,000 and the net revenue was over $42,000. In that year Joseph Habersham of Georgia succeeded Mr. Pickering, and continued throughout the following administration until November 2, 1801, he coming to Washington when the government moved to this city. He had as his assistant Abraham Bradley.

The department was established in this city in a building at the northeast corner of 9th and E streets northwest, previously occupied by Dr. John Crocker, and remained here until the old Great Hotel building, which Samuel Blodgett had commenced to erect on E street between 7th and 8th streets July 4, 1793, was purchased by the government under the act of April 28, 1810, appropriating therefore $20,000. This building was destroyed by fire in December 1836.

Expansion of Service
The service had rapidly expanded and in 1800 the number of post offices was 903 and the post routes had increased to nearly 21,000 miles. In the year before, the death penalty in the previous laws was superseded by that of flogging. The Postmaster General in 1801 reported on the post roads that one-third of the expense had not been produced on some of them in two years.

In November 1801, Gideon Granger of Connecticut headed the department, and he served for thirteen years. At first it took a letter and answer forty days between Portland, Me., and Savannah, Ga., and forty-four days from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, but in these years he had reduced the time to twenty-seven and thirty days. During Mr. Granger's term there were many improvements in the service, and to the days of Madison, 1809, the post offices had increased to over 2,000 and receipts were nearly half a million. In 1810 there was a second assistant provided for, and a new scale of postage was adopted.

There were over 2,400 post offices by 1810 and the post routes covered over 37,000 miles, but the amount of postage had decreased.

Granger Loses Place
Though navigation by steam had started in 1807, it was not introduced until 1813, and a little later steamboats were employed over a number of routes. Although Mr. Granger had made a very effective Postmaster General, he lost his place by refusing to follow the advice of President Madison in respect to the appointment of postmasters in 1814, and Return J. Meigs succeeded him.

There were 2,751 post offices 100 years ago in the eighteen states and a number of historical characters were recognized by a number. Washington was the name given to thirteen of them. There were six Franklins, seven Waynes and Jeffersons. There were five Hamiltons, Harrisons, Jacksons, Madisons and Montgomeries, and four Morrises.