Post Office Names

 

Historically, local communities suggested the name for their Post Offices, subject to the approval of the Post Office Department. The sources of some Post Office names are lost to history; there are no postal records on name origins. Often Post Offices were named after the town they served; sometimes they were named after the first postmaster. Many Post Office names changed over time. For example, the name of the Joliet, Illinois, Post Office was originally Juliet, then Romeo, then Juliet again before being changed to Joliet.

At first, unique names for Post Offices were not mandatory. The 1825 United States Official Register lists many instances of two Post Offices with the same name in the same state. Some states had three Post Offices with the same name — for example, three Bloomfields in Ohio and three Washingtons in Pennsylvania.

By the 1840s, the utility of unique names was officially recognized. Instructions on the application to establish a Post Office read:

 

The name of the candidate for postmaster should not be applied as the name of a post office. It is preferable to have some LOCAL or PERMANENT name, which must not be the name of any other office in the State; and you should aim to select a name not appropriated to any office in the United States.41

 

Despite these instructions, many new Post Offices were named after the first postmaster. In one 15-year period in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, 9 out of 20 new Post Offices were given the postmaster’s first or last name or some variant.

Meanwhile, Post Office names too similar to each other continued to create confusion. In 1852 Vermont, mail for Saint Johnsbury East and Saint Johnsbury Centre often went to Saint Johnsbury, causing delays. Instructions in the 1880s addressed this problem, specifying short names for offices which would “not resemble the name of any other post office in the United States.”42 In the 1890s, the instructions were relaxed, calling for names dissimilar to “any other post office in the State.”43

Between 1850 and 1890 the number of Post Offices increased from 18,417 to 62,401. Inconsistent geographic names were deemed “a serious and growing evil in the publications of the Government.”44 On September 4, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison created the United States Board on Geographic Names to settle questions regarding place names and to induce uniformity. In its first annual report, issued in 1892, the Board singled out the Post Office Department as one of many sources of confusion, citing the “thousands of cases where the name of the post-office does not conform to the local name of the place.” The Board outlined 13 guiding principles in assigning names, including a preference for locally-accepted names; avoiding the possessive form and the words “city” and “town;” using “burg” over “burgh,” “boro” over “borough,” and “center” over “centre;” and choosing one-word names where possible.

On February 13, 1891, Postmaster General John Wanamaker ordered postal employees to follow the Board’s decisions whenever possible, and two more orders in the 1890s reiterated this. As a result, thousands of Post Office names were shortened in the 1890s. Perhaps to calm fears of sweeping name changes, in his 1896 Annual Report the Postmaster General stated that “in the selection of new names the Department rule of short, single names is strictly adhered to, but changes of names are not [normally] authorized… at offices of long standing.” Some communities successfully lobbied to have the earlier form of their name reinstated. For example, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Post Office lost its “h” in 1894, but regained it in 1911.

The Postal Operations Manual, as revised through August 2006, required a Post Office to normally bear the official name of the town or community it serves.

In 2006, the ten most common Post Office names were:

 

Clinton (26)

Franklin (25)

Madison (25)

Washington (25)

Chester (23)

Marion (23)

Greenville (22)

Springfield (22)

Georgetown (21)

Salem (21)

 

Facility Names

In 1998, the Paterson, New Jersey, Post Office was designated the “Larry Doby Post Office,” honoring the Hall of Fame outfielder who was the first African American to play baseball in the American League. In 2003, a Chicago postal facility was designated the “Cesar Chavez Post Office,” honoring civil rights leader Cesar E. Chavez. Since at least 1967 some postal facilities have been named in honor of individuals — usually by Congress and sometimes by the Postal Service. About one in six public laws passed by the 108th Congress (2003-2004) concerned the naming of a postal facility in honor of an individual. This name applies to the building that houses the Post Office, not to the Post Office itself.

The Postal Operations Manual specifies that the Postal Service may name a postal facility after an individual “only with the approval of the Postmaster General and only if the individual has been deceased for at least ten years, with the exception of deceased U.S. Presidents, Postmasters General, or former members of the [Postal Service’s] Board of Governors.” These restrictions do not apply to individuals honored by acts of Congress.