Monday, January 31, 2022

Forever: Sending a Letter

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Today “forever” costs fifty-eight cents. At least that’s what sending a one-ounce letter within the United States in 2021 costs. In October this year, the US Postal Service announced that first class mail may take them a little longer to deliver and for us to expect some letters and packages to arrive days later than in the past.

At this time of year, letters and packages keep the Post Office pretty busy. To appreciate how some things have changed, we invite you to view our current exhibit Going Postal. This exhibit is a fun look at mail service in Chemung County. 

Of course, mail was delivered in the colonies before the United States was a country, it was just delivered by anyone you might convince or pressure into carrying a message for you. As the colonies grew, Great Britain set up a mail system modeled after their own public mail service, one which had operated since the time of Henry VIII. The word post refers to the English mail service being carried from post to post. Each post had a master who would sort out and remove his area’s mail and return the rest to a post boy who then resumed delivery.

B. Franklin, Painting by J. Duplessis, 1778

In 1753, the Crown appointed Benjamin Franklin to serve as Joint Postmaster General for the colonies. During his tenure he established new mail routes, and erected sandstone mile markers known as Franklin Markers, to indicate distances. The changes Franklin made resulted in a faster and more reliable mail service. He even worked remotely as he spent much of the late 1750s in England. He audited postal statements and made decisions through the mail. Under his leadership, the postal service in the colonies turned a profit for the first time.

It was all fine until Franklin was implicated in leaking important letters sent between the British Crown and the British Governor of Massachusetts. Franklin, opposed to British rule, was dismissed from his post in 1774. Without his lead, the system began to fail.

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the United States Post Office. The drafted constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” to promote interstate communication and establish a source of revenue. Franklin was appointed its first Postmaster General. He was quick to rebuild his previous postal system, and it soon outperformed the British version. Franklin served in this position for a little over a year before he was appointed ambassador to France.

The Postal Service Act, signed by President George Washington in 1792 established unification, rules and regulations, and gave the Postmaster General greater powers under the United States Post Office Department. One of these was the ability to create postal routes to ensure that mail delivery would serve existing communities and expand as the new nation grew. It also allowed newspapers to be carried by the postal system at low rates. This helped spread information and improve communication throughout the young nation.

The title Postmaster General comes from the British model. For most of its existence in the United States, the position was part of the presidential cabinet. In 1971, the Post Office Department was reorganized into the United States Postal Service (USPS) by President Nixon. Since then, the Postmaster General is appointed by the Board of Governors and can only be removed by the board. Members are nominated to the board by the US President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The current Board of Governors consists of nine members in addition to the Postmaster General and the Deputy Postmaster General.

The USPS is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, both personal and business. It receives no tax dollars for operating costs relying on postage sales and services to pay for funding. For the past few years, USPS has operated at a loss. Much of the blame for this is misunderstood.

In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was passed to address USPS financial issues. The act requires the USPS to deliver mail six days a week; prohibits increasing postage faster than the rate of inflation; and prepays benefits for all their employees for at least fifty years. The prepaid benefits is something no other organization does, and many think it is to blame for their growing deficit. The Postal Service Reform Act (2021) was introduced last May with bi-partisan support to undo some of the 2006 changes.

The USPS is the nation’s 2nd largest civilian employer and there are 15 Post Office branches in the county to serve us. Our Going Postal exhibit has uniform patches, photographs, stamps, and more fun facts about Chemung County’s mail service and is on display Monday through Saturday 10 am – 5 pm through the spring. Seeing some of the history behind receiving a personal letter or package makes that first class stamp even more of a bargain.


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