The Radical Idea That Undergirds Our Postal System

The Radical Idea That Undergirds Our Postal System

The Radical Idea That Undergirds Our Postal System

Victorian-era postal reform enshrined the principle that all letter writers were equal. Now that principle is under threat.


With Covid-19 confining most Americans to their homes, many of us have become reliant on mail delivery for everything from toiletries to toys for our out-of-school children. Yet, as businesses cut back on advertisements and solicitations, mail volume has dropped by 30 percent compared with this time last year, and the United States Postal Service projects that it will lose $13 billion this fiscal year and $22 billion over the next 18 months. The agency could be financially insolvent by October.

President Donald Trump has insisted that there will be no bailout, falsely claiming that the USPS could cover its costs by raising rates on Amazon, FedEx, and UPS. He appears happy to let the postal service sputter and to favor the long-held conservative dream of privatization.

We have decades’ worth of experience with industries such as phone companies and British rail lines to know that privatization almost never leads to more efficient or affordable service. But we must look earlier to the last major reorganization of postal services—the British and American postal reforms of the 1840s and ’50s—to understand just how crucial a cheap, accessible national mail system is to a modern society. Postal reform institutionalized and enshrined the principle of equal access to the mail, precisely the principle that is now under threat. The Victorian transformation of the post also points to how we can reimagine the USPS so it can face its post-pandemic challenges. We can turn the postal service into an engine of equality.

Before the 19th century postal reform, there was technically a British state postal system, but it was expensive and cumbersome. The recipient paid the postage upon delivery, and in the 18th century a typical cost for a single-sheet letter was three or four pence—the cost of three or four loaves of bread. The price doubled for a second sheet of paper, tripled for a third, and also increased based on distance. That distance was deceptive, because mail often had to travel first to the General Post Office in London before heading back out of town to its destination. The GPO surveilled mail in a secret office, where letters were opened, read, and resealed.

Abuse and graft also hobbled the system. Just prior to reform, approximately 12.5 percent of the 82 million pieces of mail sent each year was “franked,” or mailed for free using a member of Parliament’s privileges. This widespread mail fraud led to millions of pounds in lost revenue. Others avoided postage by sending blank letters that indicated “I am well” to recipients who would simply refuse to pay after they saw the outside of the letter.

In colonial America and the early United States, a postal system likewise existed, but its primary purpose was to deliver newspapers—which traveled at low rates—not personal letters. As in the United Kingdom, ordinary people did not receive mail at home; instead, they had to go to a post office to send and retrieve letters, making the process more public and thus less accessible to women. Letters often waited at the post office for days, weeks, or even months for their addressees to claim them.

In both the US and UK, the systems were notorious for slow delivery times and lost or stolen letters; in the late 17th century, author Charles Gildon published a series of books titled The Post-Boy Rob’d of His Mail; or, The Pacquet Broke Open, which riffed on the common experience of intercepted mail. The elite turned to private couriers, creating a two-tiered system.

Sending letters was the only long-distance form of communication at the time. As urbanization accelerated in the 17th and 18th centuries and the post remained unreliable, people started to lose contact with loved ones.

In the 1830s, a postal official named Rowland Hill began advocating a series of reforms. The most famous and significant of these were introducing prepaid postage and reducing the cost of a standard letter to one penny. Hill’s reforms were implemented in 1839–40 and the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, featuring an engraving of the 21-year-old Queen Victoria, appeared in 1840.

Supposedly, Hill got the idea for postal reform after seeing a young woman refuse a letter from her fiancé because she could not afford the postage. Proponents popularized his plan with sensational stories of siblings separated for decades and young women losing their virtue because family members could not pay to receive their letters of pleas for assistance. In his pamphlet Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability, Hill asked Britons to imagine what a world of universal and accessible mail would look like. He dwelled on the benefits to the poor and working classes, who would no longer have to choose between meeting daily needs and staying connected to friends and relatives.

After the reforms, people totally changed how they used the mail. The first self-sealing envelopes appeared, negating the need for accessories like stamps and sealing wax. Letter boxes also appeared—generally attributed to novelist and postal official Anthony Trollope—allowing people to mail letters without going to the post office. And home addresses as we know them, with number and street name, became systematized. (Previously, directions such as “over against the Flag and Lamb” had been common, leading to yet more lost mail.) All of these changes made the post both more accessible and more private, allowing ordinary people to easily send and receive letters.

In the first year after postal reform, the volume of mail doubled, and it doubled again by the end of the decade, more than making up for the reduction in rates. Hill had been right that there was a pent-up demand for a modern, convenient mail service.

The series of American reforms in the 1840s and ’50s that standardized and reduced postage costs transformed what had been a system for the delivery of newspapers and business letters—which worked best in urban areas—into a single, nationwide network. A letter to any place in the country cost the same as to anyplace else, creating a bureaucracy that collapsed distances across the expanding nation. Even before the arrival in 1860 of the famous Pony Express (a private, short-lived experiment), postal reform made interaction with the post an everyday occurrence. Between 1840 and 1860, the annual volume of letters more than quintupled, from 27 million to 161 million.

After reform, people came to see a reliable postal system as a key aspect of modern living. Letter writers were all equal: If you could afford a stamp, your piece of mail was as valuable as anyone else’s. Now, without such a national system, rural communities will likely lose postal services, just as they lag behind in acquiring broadband access. The image of postal workers across the nation deterred by “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night”—nor global pandemic—encapsulates the assumption that everyone must have equal access to the mail.

In fact, as we defend the USPS in the face of Covid-19 and Trump’s opposition, we have the opportunity not just to maintain the status quo but to envision a new set of postal reforms that would extend this principle and secure the agency’s finances into the future. Most obviously, Congress must end the requirement, passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress in 2006, that the USPS prefund its retirees’ pensions through the year 2056, a stipulation imposed on no other federal agency or private business. The demand purposefully undermined the service so that Republicans could later claim the USPS was insolvent—exactly the situation in which it now finds itself. Removing this burden would avoid moves such as ending most Saturday delivery, as the agency threatened to do in 2013.

More dramatically, postal banking could provide bank accounts and small loans to underserved communities, a service already available in 139 other countries. Postal banking would help end the predatory payday loan industry and serve as a check on big banks by offering an alternative to commercial practices such as overdraft fees and pressure to open new accounts. Postal banking could step into minority and low-income communities, which are disproportionately likely to lack access to banks and to use expensive check-cashing facilities instead. The service would be particularly useful during a financial crisis like the current one, because it would allow the government to simply deposit funds in Americans’ accounts rather than delaying payments for weeks or months.

It is not enough to maintain the USPS. To continue the legacy of postal reform, we must expand its principles of equality and accessibility. The pandemic only underscores how dependent we are upon the service. A new era of reform would ensure that we do not return to an expensive, tiered mail system that would result in millions of Americans’ losing access to a vital form of connectivity.

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