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Today, Feb. 20, marks the anniversary of one of the few government departments that was authorized by the Constitution. When the document was first drafted in 1787 it gave Congress the authority to "establish post offices and post roads." It was another five years before they passed the Postal Service Act that started the United States Post Office Department as it was then called but, in 1792, it finally came into being.

There had been postal services in the colonies before the revolution, of course. Most of these were very small and were usually restricted to a single town or colony. In Boston there was an office where one could send letters back to England and others where letters could be sent between colonies, but the service was very limited and not reliable. The same city did have some independent postal routes as early as 1639 and by 1672 a Massachusetts Bay resident could send a letter to New York City, but these services were slow, rare and the quality of the service varied greatly.

Twenty years later, Thomas Neale was given a royal patent to establish a postal service in the colonies.

Neale began in Virginia by trying to open a post office in each town. The postage rates were fixed and other colonies quickly followed but again the system was intermittent and unreliable. In 1693, it was introduced to New Hampshire but over the next five years that office made about $2,000, but cost $5,000 to run, leaving Neale out of pocket.

Neale's patent went on until 1710 and then the British Parliament extended the English system to the colonies with the central office in New York City. At that time, of course, most of the official mail did not pass from colony to colony but rather was sent across the Atlantic to England. Neale could not be everywhere at once and so he appointed colonial postmasters, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin.

When the Revolutionary War began, everything changed as far as the postal service was concerned. No longer was far off London the center of things, Congress sat in Philadelphia and once independence was declared the city became the nerve center of the country. The new government needed news of what was happening both militarily and socially, their debates, decisions, new laws and orders to the armies had to reach states quickly and safely. For this to happen, an efficient postal service was essential.

It was the newspapers of the day that started it. During the turmoil of the early days of the war in 1775-6 they got together with the big merchant houses and members of Second Continental Congress, negotiated a very good rate for moving their newspapers around and so the United States Post Office came into being with Benjamin Franklin temporarily at its head as Postmaster General.

After the war ended and Congress was able to get down to the proper business of running the country, they finally passed the Postal Services Act that established the Post Office as a cabinet-level post.

The post office expanded rapidly after that. When it started in the 1790s for every one thousand people it carried around 100 letters and 200 newspapers each year. Fifty years later, in 1840, the amount of mail was around 2,900 letters and 2,700 newspapers per thousand of the population.

In those years the frontier was moving westward and the postal service not only moved with it but proved an essential part of the settlement of the country. The post brought news from back home in the form of newspapers and letters and encouraged others to move west by carrying word back from the successful settlers. This expanding system needed lines of communication and in 1823 waterways were declared to be post roads and mail was carried by steam boats. One railroad in Pennsylvania was licensed to carry mail in 1832 and six years later, on July 7, 1838, all railroads in the United States were designated post roads by act of Congress.

After nine more years the first stamps, valued at five and ten cents were issued and a steamship contract was signed for the transportation of mail from the east coast to California. The journey took three weeks but was a vast improvement on the months the overland route took. The contract only lasted just over 20 years, though, because in 1869 the first trans-continental railroad was completed. The Railway Mail Service was introduced and mail was sorted into destinations as the train traveled.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the introduction of Rural Free Delivery and parcel post had vastly increased the volume of mail being handled although some people did try to take advantage of the new systems. In 1914 Charlotte May Pierstorff, age 4, was mailed by her parents to her grandparents' house and this led to the mailing of people being prohibited.

In 1918, the post office took to the air with the introduction of air mail service and delivered 49 million letters in its first two years. The service continued to grow. It was still a cabinet level department up until the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971 when it became the United States Postal Service we have today.

Currently the USPS has nearly 600,000 workers using 220,000 vehicles to collect and deliver some 660 million pieces of mail each day to around 150 million addresses in the United States. It is a huge organization and a far cry from the infant postal service Ben Franklin first led.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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