Parcel Post

By law, the Post Office Department could not carry parcels weighing more than four pounds at the beginning of the 20th century. Private express companies, which had begun to flourish in the mid-1800s, delivered large packages.

The establishment of rural free delivery had provided a heady taste of life for rural Americans. Soon the demand increased for the delivery of packages containing food, dry goods, drugs, and other commodities not easily available to farmers. When Congress considered enacting a law to allow Parcel Post service, express companies and country merchants fought long and hard against it. Rural residents, who represented 54 percent of the country’s population in 1910, were equally emphatic in wanting Parcel Post. While Congress was hotly debating the question, one express company declared a large dividend to stockholders. Public indignation at their so-called exorbitant profits helped Congress decide the issue.

The Act of August 24, 1912 (37 Stat. 539), authorized Parcel Post, a service that would:


embrace all other matter, including farm and factory products not now embraced by law in either the first, second or third class, not exceeding eleven pounds in weight, nor greater in size than seventy-two inches in length and girth combined …

Parcel Post began on January 1, 1913. It was an instant success, with 300 million parcels mailed in the first six months the service was offered. The effect on the national economy was electric. Marketing and merchandising through Parcel Post spurred the growth of the great mail-order houses. Montgomery Ward, the first mail-order company, started with a catalog of more than 100 products in 1872. Sears, Roebuck and Company followed Montgomery Ward in 1893. The year Parcel Post began, Sears handled five times as many orders as it did the year before. Five years later, Sears doubled its revenues.

Parcel Post grew too, literally and in volume. Its weight and size limits were expanded over time, reaching 70 pounds and 100 inches on August 1, 1931.34 After World War II, Parcel Post’s comparatively low rates stimulated its growth while the business of express companies began to decrease. Eventually, Congress intervened to rescue the Railway Express Agency from a precarious financial position. On January 1, 1952, the weight of parcels sent via the mails to large (first class) Post Offices was reduced to 40 pounds, if the parcels were traveling up to 150 miles, and to 20 pounds for any greater distance. None of these parcels could exceed 72 inches in length and girth combined. Parcels bound for other Post Offices still could weigh up to 70 pounds and be up to 100 inches in size. Parcel Post volume fell.

To offset this, weight and size limits for parcels moving between larger Post Offices gradually were increased starting on July 1, 1967, so that by July 1, 1969, the weight limit for all such parcels had been increased to 40 pounds, and by July 1, 1971, the size limit had been increased to 84 inches.

On February 27, 1983, a uniform weight and size limit was set at 70 pounds, 108 inches, for parcels mailed from any Post Office to any destination within the United States. On January 10, 1999, the size limit for Parcel Post increased to 130 inches.