A Brief History of U.S. Mail Delivery

U.S. Mail Delivery

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Mail carriers in 1950s New York City head out during Christmas, the Postal Service's busiest time of year.

It's a good thing the unofficial motto of the u.s. Postal Service--"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"--doesn't mention Saturday mail delivery. Because that may soon be history. On March 2, Postmaster General John Potter announced that major cuts, including an end to weekend service, would be needed to prevent a projected $238 billion loss over the next decade that is largely a result of fewer letters and packages being sent. It's the first time in USPS history that a lack of mail has been cause for major concern.

When the Constitution established the postmaster-general position, the Founding Fathers were worried about how to get the new nation's increasing volume of mail delivered. A system had been developed in the colonies, in which merchants, slaves and Native Americans would pass letters and parcels from person to person until they reached their destinations. That soon gave way to designated mail carriers who traveled via horse and stagecoach. One short-lived offshoot of the horseback system, the Pony Express, had riders on about 400 horses who could get letters from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., in 10 days. After 18 months, however, the Pony Express ceased to exist when the complicated operation became too expensive.

Mail was later distributed via locomotive and eventually airplane. But not even the fastest delivery speeds--at one time, mail was dropped off up to four times a day--could stop what would spell catastrophe for the USPS: e-mail, which is faster, easier and free. That, coupled with the fact that 4 out of 5 households with Internet access now pay bills online, has left mail carriers out in the cold. In 2009 alone, post offices saw a 13% drop in mail volume. Forget rain or gloom of night--it's the act of clicking Send billions of times a day that may finally stay those trusty couriers.