The Postal Role in U.S. Development

The 19th century saw the growth of the United States. The Post Office Department, the communications system that helped bind the nation together, developed new services that have lasted into the 21st century and subsidized the development of every major form of transportation.


Between 1789, when the federal government began operations, and 1861, when civil war broke out, the United States grew dramatically. Its territory extended into the Midwest in 1787 through the Northwest Ordinance, reached down the Mississippi River and west to the Rocky Mountains after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and stretched to the Pacific coast by the 1840s. The country’s population grew from 3.9 million people in 1790 to 31.4 million in 1860.


The Post Office Department grew too. The number of Post Offices increased from 75 in 1790 to 28,498in 1860. Post roads (roads on which mail travels) increased from 59,473 miles at the beginning of 1819 to 84,860 by the end of 1823. By the end of 1819, the Department served citizens in 22 states, including the newest states of Illinois (1818) and Alabama (1819).


These new territories and states, as well as established communities, pressed the Post Office Department for more routes and faster delivery. The Department met these needs, expanding its service and developing ways to move mail more quickly. By 1822, it took only 11 days to move mail between Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee.


In 1828, there were 7,530 Post Offices and 29,956 postal employees, mail contractors, and carriers, making the Department the largest employer in the executive branch. Because the Department awarded a large number of jobs and contracts, the Postmaster General’s power grew as well. President Andrew Jackson recognized the potential for patronage and, in 1829, invited William T. Barry of Kentucky to become the first Postmaster General to sit as a member of the President’s Cabinet. Barry’s predecessor, John McLean of Ohio, had been the first Postmaster General to refer to the Post Office, or General Post Office as it sometimes was called, as the Post Office Department, but the organization was not specifically established as an executive department by Congress until June 8, 1872 (17 Stat. 283).


By 1831, postal employees accounted for 76 percent of the civilian federal workforce. Postmasters outnumbered soldiers 8,764 to 6,332 and were the most widespread representatives of the federal government.


As the country grew, people in new states and territories petitioned Congress for even more post routes, regardless of their cost or profitability. The Post Office Department, and thus the federal government, had to decide whether to subsidize routes that promoted settlement but did not generate enough revenue to pay for themselves or to operate in the black. The Department struggled with this issue. With congressional support and keeping fiscal responsibility firmly in mind, the Department ultimately made decisions in the 19th century that reflected public service as its highest aim. It funded post routes that supported national development and instituted services to benefit all residents of the country.


The Post Office Department also simplified rates in the middle of the 19th century. Before that time, postage was based on the number of sheets in a letter and the distance a letter traveled. Families, friends, or businesses further distant paid more to keep in touch. For instance, from 1799 to 1815, it cost:


8 cents/sheet sent 40 miles or fewer

10 cents/sheet sent 41 to 90 miles

12 1/2 cents/sheet sent 91 to 150 miles

17 cents/sheet sent 151 to 300 miles

20 cents/sheet sent 301 to 500 miles

25 cents/sheet sent more than 500 miles


In 1845, the Department began charging rates essentially based on weight and whether a letter was going more than or fewer than 300 miles. In 1855, the rate structure was three cents for a letter weighing a half-ounce and traveling up to 3,000 miles, which included most of the United States and its territories. Letters going farther than 3,000 miles were charged postage of ten cents per sheet.


The Act of March 3, 1863 (12 Stat. 704), based postage for a letter on its weight and eliminated all differences based on distance, thus providing universal service to customers no matter where they lived in the country.


The act also created three classes of mail: First-Class Mail, which embraced letters; second-class mail, which covered publications issued at regular periods; and third-class mail, which included all other mailable matter.