Monday, December 11, 2017

You've Got Mail!

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Notice anything funny about this envelope? 

Letter for William Beers, 1862

Let me give you a clue: there’s no street address (and no zip code, but that’s another story). How then, you might ask, was the letter supposed to be delivered? It wasn’t.

When the first Elmira post office opened in January 1801, there was no home delivery. People from all over Chemung County had to visit the small office located at the foot of Fox street in order to pick up their mail. This was actually a pretty big improvement. The village had been founded in 1790, but, until 1801, residents had to go all the way to the post office in Owego or pay someone to pick up their mail for them. Later, in April of that year, Elijah Buck opened the first post office in the Town of Chemung in his general store to serve the eastern half of the county. 

Since coming in from the hinterlands to check if you had mail could be quite a hassle, the Elmira post office notified recipients by posting an ad in the weekly paper. Even with the notices, letters could sit for weeks before it was picked up. By the 1830s, the volume of mail coming into Elmira was so great that the post master could no longer afford to post notices in the paper. By this point, each of the rural towns had their own post office which was good, considering the only way to know if you had a letter was to go and find out. 

List of letters, The Investigator, December 1, 1821
 This lead to long lines at the post office and, in a roundabout way, the first instance of free home delivery. The story goes that in the winter of 1862, Cleveland postal employee Joseph William Briggs was so moved by the sight of women lining up in the cold rain, desperate for word from their husbands and sons fighting in the Civil War that he began delivering mail to their homes for free. Later that same year, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair composed a report to the president wherein he recommended free urban home delivery by salaried carriers as a way improve user convenience. In 1863, Congress acted to authorize home delivery in cities where income from local postage was more than sufficient to pay all expenses of the service. Thus, the inclusion of home addresses on envelopes was born!

 By 1864, 65 cities had free home delivery. By 1880, that number was up to 104, and, by 1900, 796. Elmira began free home delivery in 1873 or 1874. There were initially four carriers for the entire city: John King, John Y. Carpenter, Uriah Warner, and Judson Cornell. All were Civil War veterans. John Carpenter was missing an arm. The volume of mail proved too much for just four men to handle and two additional carriers, William P. Roosa and John R. Brockway, were added in March 1874.  
Letter for William Beers with street address, 1879

Special thanks to Alan Parsons whose research request inspired this post.


  1. Very when I go out to my front porch to get my mail I will remember at one time I would have had to go to Owego to pick it up...thanks for the article makes us appreciate what we have....