Of the marvels French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville found in his tour of 1830s America, the postal service had them all beat.
It was “the great link between minds,” he wrote, one that bound the fledgling nation together by getting information crucial to maintaining a democracy to the tiniest hamlets.
“It’s difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates in the midst of these deserts,” the author of “Democracy in America” said, as quoted in “Neither Snow Nor Rain,” one of two new histories of the U.S. Postal Service.
Like Winifred Gallagher’s “How the Post Office Created America,” Devin Leonard’s “Neither Snow Nor Rain” sets out to chart the history and impact of the mail service in America. Both books map the post office growth and role in the nation’s growth – the latter, oftentimes on the back of the former. And both show how, over the years, delivering the mail shaped everything from national transportation systems (from roads to airlines) to our national character, even as economic and political forces put its future in question.
The way each author gets there is a little different.
Gallagher spends much of her story focusing on the important role that the founding fathers gave to the post office. “The importance,” George Washington wrote, “of the post office and post roads … is increased by their instrumentality in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government.”
One way the new American government did that, Gallagher notes, was by authorizing mail service for the entire country, not just for people with money or those living in the largest cities. Roads were built – although, as de Tocqueville wrote, they started out more as ruts than roadways – and post offices established around the country, creating pockets of connectedness in a spread-out nation.
For many Americans, Gallagher writes, from after the Revolution through World War I, the post office was their main link to the federal government.
As the post office continued to grow, it continued to foster innovation, using the expanding rail system to hasten delivery; setting up savings banks at post offices to encourage thrift; expanding home delivery to remote rural areas; and helping bankroll the nation’s nascent aviation industry.
While Gallagher concentrates on the foundations of U.S. postal history, Leonard, in “Neither Snow Nor Rain,” takes a more anecdotal approach, giving his narrative more room to tell about some of the post office’s more recent, and more revealing, dramas.
Like when, in 1966, the post office in Chicago – at the time, the world’s largest mail-processing facility – was shut down, after internal labor strife, racial conflict, outdated equipment and a last-minute explosion of pre-ZIP code bulk mail ground operations to a halt. To make sure the mail got through, truckloads were sent to post offices in Milwaukee, Nashville and Kansas City to be sorted and shipped.
Particularly compelling is Leonard’s chapter on “going postal,” recounting the incidents – relatively few in number, but big in psychological impact – in which postal workers took deadly aim at supervisors and co-workers in the workplace. More than just recounting the horrors, Leonard puts them in context – in a postal service where workers faced increasing pressure to do more with less while managers’ ability to deal with problem employees was limited by strong unions and a hiring system that disproportionately favored veterans, even those with service records showing a history of violence.
Both Gallagher and Leonard celebrate some of the post office’s most important innovators, like John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate who under President Benjamin Harrison launched Rural Free Delivery but had many of his other innovations short-circuited by Congress.
And both authors agree that politics, fed by an intractable labor environment, did more to put what is now the U.S. Postal Service on the ropes than email or the internet ever did.
In fact, both relate, USPS launched its own version of digital delivery – called E-COM – in 1982, years before AOL was telling us cheerfully that we had mail. Not surprisingly, political obstacles to funding, coupled with yowls from companies hoping to get into the business itself, forced changes in the USPS plan that made the system harder to use and more expensive. The postal service pulled the plug in 1985.
While both Gallagher and Leonard wrap up with a “can the post office survive?” feint, Leonard’s more anecdotal storytelling approach – bracketed by the tale of a guy from Queens, New York, who’s trying to visit every post office in the United States – feels more hopeful because it underscores how inexorably our national character is linked to the institution.
Besides, as Leonard points out, how else are we going to get all that stuff we order online?