“Whether great or small, a post office was the visible form of the Federal Government in every community and to every citizen. Its hand is the only one that touches the local life, the social interests, and business concerns of every neighborhood.” John Wanamaker, Postmaster General, 1889-1893.
In 2019, the United States Postal Service reported that it delivered 143 billion pieces of mail to 160 million addresses, of which about 46 million were rural. Additionally, it operated 31,000 local post offices.
That year at least 1.3 billion of those pieces of mail were Christmas cards, and many of the packages held Christmas gifts. In 2020, about 64 million were ballots, representing a pivotal role in the recent General Election.
This column, the first of two, explores the development of the postal system, including its impact on local communities. The information comes from newspapers, books and online sources on the history of both the national postal system and those of our two states.
Mostly, private carriers were responsible for mail service before the American Revolution. If someone was going to a distant community, they might notify neighbors of a willingness to carry letters. Delivery was slow and often not reliable.
In 1776, John Balch was appointed post-rider to deliver mail from Portsmouth to Haverhill, once every two weeks. At this time, riders announced their arrival with the blowing of a horn.
The first postal route in Vermont was established in 1783 and included mail delivery from Brattleboro to Newbury. Early mail routes changed over time, sometimes replaced by different ones.
For a time, the independent republic of Vermont maintained its own postal system. But in 1795, the federal government took possession and postal routes to Newbury and Haverhill were established. Mail was distributed to area towns from those two locations until more post offices were established.
At the beginning of the 19th century, express wagons or coaches replaced individual riders. Stagecoach lines were encouraged by the federal postal subsidy. Prior to 1845 inland mail was given to the lowest bidder who agreed to provide “due celerity, certainty and security of transportation.” As stars identified these three conditions, these privately-operated routes were designated “star routes.”
Post offices were located in taverns, stores, or private homes. Some postmasters profited by taking subscriptions, selling books, or from the increased traffic in their place of business. The income from the sale of stamps or collecting postage was small. In 1801, the postmaster in Newbury received a quarterly salary of just $5.64. But in return, postmasters were allowed to send their own mail free-of-charge.
While early offices might be a table or, in the case of East Thetford, the slots on a tavern’s stair banisters, larger offices evolved with oak window units with numbered locked post boxes.
The number of post offices locally increased dramatically with openings in Orford (1794), Haverhill (1794), Bradford (1804), Thetford (1807), Lyme (1812) and Piermont (1814). At one time both Thetford and Newbury had six each, somewhat unique in the state. Haverhill also had six. The ones in Newbury included Newbury Village, South Newbury, West Newbury, Wells River, Boltonville, and Newbury Center. Later openings included Warren (1820), East Topsham (1823) and Woodsville (1853-55, 1860).
Postal rates were very high and based on the number of sheets in the letter. Newspapers were much cheaper at 1cent each for delivery under 100 miles. To avoid the higher costs, letter writers put as much as possible on one sheet or wrote in the newspaper margins. “Ingenious people contrived to evade postage by means of dotted words or letters in newspapers,” a practice that was made illegal in 1847.
Two years earlier, there had been a significant change in postal rates. Articles in Vermont newspapers extolled the system of uniform rates used by Great Britain. The adoption of a uniform rate regardless of distance allowed the profits from urban post offices to offset the higher cost of mail distribution in rural areas. One newspaper went so far as to say “No greater revolution ever accomplished the good for humanity” as that which resulted from this common postage.
Congress authorized the first US postal stamp in 1847. Stampless letters, with the postal cost paid by the receiver, were phased out. The use of stamps was made mandatory in 1855. These adhesive stamps bore the likeness of an American president or statesman. In the 1890s, realizing the possibility of increased revenue, commemorative stamps began to be issued.
For a time there were incorrect suggestions that a private stamp introduced by Brattleboro postmaster Dr. Frederick Palmer in 1846 was the first American stamp. Palmer introduced this stamp for use from the Brattleboro office only to “overcome the annoyance of the system, or lack of system, in regard to the payment of letter postage.”
They were used until July 1, 1847 at which time the Post Office Department ordered all unused Brattleboro stamps to be destroyed. In 2000, an 1847 letter with two Brattleboro stamps sold for $100,000 at a New York auction.. It was described as being among the most outstanding examples of rare stamps.
During the administration of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), the practice of presidential appointment of postmasters became common. That meant that a change in the political party in the White House brought about a flurry of dismissals and new appointments of party supporters, sometimes causing local resentment. The Bellows Falls Times reported in 1866, “the Union Postmaster at Bradford has been removed and a bitter copperhead appointed in his place.”
The impact of this immense patronage was evident in 1885 when Democrat Grover Cleveland assumed office. Republicans had enjoyed the privilege of appointments since Abraham Lincoln was president. Newspapers reported, “there’s a great rush for Federal offices in Vermont…as many as 25 sound democrats were given postmasterships in the Green Mountains.”
Cleveland lost re-election to Republican Benjamin Harrison, but successfully ran for re-election in 1893. These changes were reflected in Bradford postmasters. Democrat Asa Dickey (1886) served during Cleveland’s first term but was succeeded by Republican Harry Parker (1890).
Cleveland’s second term resulted in Democrat George Dickey assuming the postmaster’s role but in 1897 Republican Trescott Chase took over. He remained in office for 16 years until Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. Similar shuffling was experienced in other area towns.
For many years the Democratic Party’s primary function in Vermont was to provide appointees when there was a Democratic administration. The practice of postal patronage came to an end in 1971.
Postmasters were generally men. In 1862 one national magazine suggested “female postmaster is a monstrous combination in our taste.” Nevertheless, by 1878, there were 72 female postmasters in the nation, and in 1881 there were 14 in Windham County, Vermont. The number continued to grow and, by 1893, there were 6,335 women postmasters with other women serving as clerks and carriers.
There were concerns about women carriers being married and also whether they should be asked to deliver mail to saloons or other unseemly places. While they were sometimes referred to as postmistresses, that was never their official title. One early female postmaster firmly states that she was not to be known as “any man’s mistress.” Retired Piermont postmaster Gloria Randall says she and her predecessor Marjorie Wardrop used that retort, offering in a friendly fashion, to those who considered calling them “postmistress.”
In 1810, federal law required local post offices to be open on Sunday for at least one hour. This hour usually coincided with the end of church services. Exceptions were made if there was no new mail. Post offices located in taverns gave men a convenient opportunity to check to see if there was mail on Sunday.
Sabbatarians opposed commercial activities on the Sabbath and, by the 1840s, were lobbying for Sunday closures. The belief was “the practice was contrary to the laws of God.” In 1845, Montpelier’s Vermont Watchman included editorials in favor of suspending Sabbath mail, but a proposal before the US Senate was rejected.
By 1848, Sabbath mail had been mainly been discontinued in New England. But by the 1880s, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported that when mail was delivered on Sunday, the number of towns where the post office is open “is much greater each year.” By that time, Bradford’s office was open for at least a half-hour each Sunday, beginning at noon.
In 1912, Sabbatharians were joined by labor groups to advocate for a six-day workweek. The Postmaster General ruled that local post offices “shall not be open on Sunday for the purpose of delivering mail.”
To the best of my knowledge, this rule continued until 2013 when Sunday delivery of packages to large metro areas commenced. Currently, regional distribution centers operate, the Postal Service conducts online options and local offices may allow access to lobby boxes on Sundays, but there are no retail operations.
When I went to mail several Christmas packages at the Bradford Post Office on Dec 9, there was a notice that the dramatic increase in mail volume was a challenge to the Postal System. I hope that your holiday packages and cards were sent in a timely fashion and have arrived safety to brighten the darkness of the season and help to meet the challenges of this extraordinary year.