The first postal service in America was employed under colonial rule when in 1692 British monarchs William and Mary ruled that services for sending, receiving and delivering letters and packages should be established throughout the colonies. This service remained in action until 1775, when Benjamin Franklin created the United States Post Office in Philadelphia under decree from the Second Continental Congress. Under Article One of the U.S. Constitution, the Congress was empowered "to establish post offices and post roads."
The postal service became known as the United States Post Office Department in 1792 and the Postmaster General received a position on the U.S. Presidential cabinet. At the time, the Postmaster General was actually the last position in line to take authority of the U.S. government should something happen to the president, and of course to all other cabinet members.
It was under the administration of President Andrew Jackson that the Post Office Department grew and expanded, providing service to the ever increasing U.S. populous. As the Post Office began to provide services to more and more areas of the country, difficulties arose from the lack of adequate transportation and limited number of employees.
Roads were limited at the time and many towns were in places where no roads led. Steamboats carried mail along rivers. From there, postal messages were carried by individual riders or by horse and buggy to nearby cities and towns. As it became clear in the early decades of the 1800s that postal service was needed across the entire country, the U.S. Government began using rail service with a single line originating in Pennsylvania. It was not until July of 1838 that all railways were declared postal routes, after which mail service was greatly improved. The speed with which mail was able to travel from state to state increased tremendously, allowing people to keep in touch better than ever before.
In the early years of postal service, a letter or package was paid for at the post office. It was not until 1847 that the first U.S. postage stamps were issued under an act of Congress. The first stamps were in denominations of five and 10 cents. The five-cent stamp was designated for letters traveling less than 300 miles and weighing no more than one ounce. Ten cent stamps were for letters traveling more than 300 miles and for those that weighed between one and two ounces.
Also in 1847, the U.S. Mail Steamship Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company were placed under contract. The U.S. Mail Steamship Company was contracted to carry mail from New York along the coast. The final stop on the line was California with port stops in New Orleans, Havana Cuba, and the Isthmus of Panama. Pacific Mail Steamships carried mail from the Isthmus of Panama to California.
The first major railroad, Panama Railway, opened in 1855 and began transporting passengers, goods and mail from Panama to California and back. A one-way trip took a period of three weeks, making it one of the fasted methods for reaching the opposite coast; it was frequently used for communications to and from the U.S. government. This route remained important in the United States until the first transcontinental railways opened in 1869.
While railway transport of mail was increased in 1862 to many parts of the country, the opening of the transcontinental rails in 1969 led to the inauguration of the Railway Mail Service (RMS). Special rail cars designated for sorting and processing mail while in route were introduced shortly thereafter. Employees of the RMS sorted mail based on the final destination and processed mail at each stop along the route.
Free delivery of mail was offered in 1889 to city dwellers and the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail service was put in place in 1896 under President Grover Cleveland, allowing people who lived in rural areas to easily have access to mail services for the first time in the country's history. Under the RFD, mail was transported from city or town post offices directly to the rural recipient. Prior to the institution of RFD, rural people had to travel to faraway towns or cities to send or receive mail.
The next big venture for the U.S. Post Office Department was in taking over air mail services in 1918. The U.S. Army Air Service previously transported mail but in 1918, a civil Air Mail Service was opened. Surplus planes left from the First World War were used and in the first year of service, the civil operation hired 40 pilots who completed more than 1,200 mail delivery flights. By 1920, the service had delivered nearly 50 million letters.
The position of Post Master General remained in the presidential line of succession until 1971 when the U.S. Post Office Department was recognized as a semi-independent organization from that of the federal government and renamed the U.S. Postal Service. Under President Richard Nixon, the U.S. Postal Service became an independent entity. Today, the U.S. Postal Service is the second-largest employer in the United States, delivers more than 650 million pieces of mail each day, and operates more than 31,000 individual post office locations throughout the United States.
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