In ancient Persia, message carriers called chapars galloped from one post to the next, hopping onto a fresh horse to continue their delivery. The historian Herodotus described the chapars in words that sound familiar 2,500 years later: The carriers were “stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”
Established in the sixth century BC, the Persian postal system — which doubled as a spy network — was arguably the world’s first. (But earlier pharaohs in Egypt had employed a courier system for their decrees.) Inspired by the Persians, the Romans started mail delivery under Augustus Caesar. His cursus publicus (Latin for “public road”) was originally intended only for official messages, but eventually the relay system broadened to mail and what would later be known as parcel post.
Later European systems employed everything from homing pigeons to traveling monks. Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I established a postal system in 1505 that outlasted the empire itself, finally being absorbed into the German mail service after 1871.
In England, Charles I first made the royal mails available to the public in 1635. The postage was paid by the recipient, an awkward arrangement that persisted for two centuries until schoolmaster Rowland Hill invented the adhesive postage stamp. Hill’s 1837 invention, for which he was knighted, was launched in 1840 with the Penny Black stamp.
Although lone postal riders began serving routes between New York and Boston as early as 1673, the American Colonies’ postal system — an offshoot of Britain’s — was chartered officially in 1691. King William and Queen Mary granted a royal patent to operate a Colonial postal system to Thomas Neale, who never actually set foot in America. Neale delegated the job to Andrew Hamilton, then governor of New Jersey.
On May 1, 1693, the Internal Colonial Postal Union inaugurated its first weekly route, between Portsmouth, NH, and Williamsburg, Va. But this system was a mess, bleeding money until the arrival of Benjamin Franklin. Named postmaster of Philadelphia by the crown in 1737, Franklin was named joint postmaster general of the entire Colonial system in 1753. He embarked on a 1,600-mile inspection tour of post offices and instituted reforms that halved delivery times, including a weekly mail wagon between Boston and Philadelphia and postal riders who traveled overnight by lantern light.
Sacked by Britain for his revolutionary tendencies in 1774, Franklin became the first postmaster general of the United States a year later. That position became a part of the presidential cabinet (albeit last in line of succession) in 1829, but was removed when the US Postal Service became independent in 1971.
Appropriately, when a New York City engraving firm printed the first US postage stamps in 1847, the 5-cent stamp bore the likeness of Franklin. It paid for a letter weighing less than 1 ounce to travel less than 300 miles. Heavier or farther-traveling mail required the 10-cent stamp honoring George Washington. (His wife, Martha, became the first woman pictured on a US stamp in 1902.)
Giving postal customers their nickel’s worth was no easy task. Alongside wagons and horseback riders, the US Post Office employed steamboats and trains; the rails were first used to transport mail on a single line in Pennsylvania in 1832. Legislation in 1838 designated all US railroads as post routes, after which the use of trains to carry the mail increased rapidly.
Until the completion of the transcontinental railroad, however, getting letters to the West Coast remained a challenge. In 1857, Congress authorized Postmaster General Aaron Brown to contract for mail delivery to California, with a goal of limiting transit to 25 days.
Brown devised a southerly route connecting Memphis and St. Louis, through Arkansas, Indian Territory, New Mexico and Arizona, to San Francisco. He gave the $600,000 annual contract to John Butterfield’s Overland Stage. Passengers got to ride along the cramped, bumpy and treacherous route for $200 a head.
Brown’s Southern sympathies led to the creation of the famed Pony Express in April 1860, as tensions rose. Fearing that mail to California might be cut off by Southern secession, the US government contracted with private express services to carry mail across a more central route. Among these was the Pony Express, founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, which traversed a 1,966-mile stretch between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. Despite its renown, fewer than 100 men rode for the Pony Express, and the service lasted a mere 18 months. It stopped after the first telegraph line to California was completed. The Railway Mail Service, which started in 1869, had a leg up on Pony Express riders: Workers were able to sort the mail en route, handling 600 pieces an hour.
Getting the mail from local post offices to homes remained a challenge. City dwellers got free home delivery beginning in 1863 (some cities delivering multiple times per day until 1950), but rural residents still had to trek to the post office or pay a private carrier. (In Victorian London, by comparison, mail was delivered up to 12 times per day in 1889.) Finally, in 1896, under pressure from farm groups, rural free delivery (RFD) began with 82 routes. It took several years to reach the entire country, but by 1901 postal carriers were delivering mail along more than 100,000 miles of rural routes.
The advent of parcel post service in 1913 boosted mail volume again. More than 4 million packages were handled in the first five days of service. Mail-order companies such as Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck boomed; in American farmhouses, their catalogs were second in popularity only to the Bible.
Mail took to the air in 1918, when the Post Office essentially created the nation’s commercial aviation industry. Using mostly WWI surplus planes, it delivered some 49 million airmail letters by 1920. Even after the system was turned over to private contractors in 1927, mail contracts provided a financial base that enabled carriers to branch out into passenger travel — much like the Romans’ cursus publicus almost 2,000 years before.
1691: Colonial postal system is chartered
1775: Continental Congress creates the US Post Office
1847: US issues first stamps
1858: Butterfield’s Overland Stage carries mail to California
1860: Pony Express begins
1872: Montgomery Ward sends out first catalog
1896: Rural free delivery begins
1900: First stamp booklets are introduced
1918: Post Office takes over airmail
1963: Post Office introduces ZIP codes
1971: Post Office becomes independent US Postal Service
1992: Self-stick stamps available nationwide
From the July 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine
More great genealogy resources from Family Tree Magazine: