How the U.S. Postal Service Fell Apart

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Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune / MCT / Getty Images

The post office in Millington, Ill., pop. 665, is one of many small-town post offices slated to close as a result of the U.S. Postal Service's financial problems

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Kalish's fascination with post offices has become a kind of quirky and extreme thesis on Americana, but it's hardly unmerited. For years, the USPS hasn't just delivered our mail. It's been a gathering place for small communities while operating as part of something larger than just a collection of mailboxes and places that sell stamps.

"The post office is a foundation piece of democracy," says New York University professor Steve Hutkins, who has been studying the USPS's financial issues. "And it's being treated like a business. And it's not."

Pack Mules and Snowmobiles
It wouldn't be far-fetched to argue that the postal service has been the most important institution in our country's history. For decades, the postal service was the largest public-sector employer in the U.S. At one point in the 19th century, three-quarters of all government employees were postal workers. The Founding Fathers considered the postal service so important that they put it in the Constitution, mandating that Congress have the power to establish and regulate post offices.

In the country's early days, the postal service held together the far-flung populations of the U.S. by delivering newspapers — the only real source for information about the new nation — throughout the country. It provided a link between families and soldiers during war. It carried mail by steamboat when no roads existed. It linked California to the rest of the country by delivering mail across the Isthmus of Panama, even before the canal was built, by using boats, pack animals and canoes.

Even today, the USPS's methods to deliver our mail are just as remarkable. Want to send a letter to the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? The postal service will take it there by mule. Need to mail a package to the Alaskan wilderness? The USPS can get it there by parachute or snowmobile. (It used sled dogs until 1963.) Have to mail something along Alabama's Magnolia River? The USPS has boats that travel from dock to dock. It has even sent mail via pneumatic tubes, missiles and hovercraft. And somehow, it's still just 44 cents to get a letter anywhere (well, 45 cents starting Jan. 22).

Today it's the country's second largest employer (after Walmart) and operates the world's largest fleet of vehicles — not to mention that it handles 40% of the entire world's mail volume.

For decades, this massive operation ran fairly smoothly, expanding along with the country and taking advantage of the new technologies brought about by railroad and flight. Mail volume increased from 50 billion pieces in 1953 to 75 billion in '66. Even so, the postal service often ran deficits. Its mandate of universal mail access almost ensured that it would go in the red. By the middle of the 20th century, the postal service was losing $600 million a year, and that's when the system starting breaking down.

On the brink of the holiday season in 1966, a sudden influx of advertising mail hit the enormous Chicago main post office (13 stories high, covering 60 acres and billed at the time as the world's largest postal facility). What happened? The mail simply stopped. Stopped. For almost three weeks, 1 million lb. of mail — 10 million pieces — barely moved. It was a confluence of employee hours' being cut, inexperienced workers' attempting to sort the mail, a postmaster position left empty for too long and improved pensions that led to a high number of retirements.

The fiasco made two things clear: the institution was vital to the nation's functionality, and there was something very wrong with the way it was being operated. Postmaster General Larry O'Brien proposed a new postal service, warning that there were cracks in the postal service's foundation and that it was close to collapse.

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