BRISTOL - The Bristol Historical Society held an event Thursday night that highlighted the development and dynamics of the U.S. Postal Service before the Civil War.
“Sending a Letter: A history of the U.S. Post Office before the Civil War” featured Tom Kelleher, who has been a historian and costume interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts for three decades.
To a room full of spectators, Kelleher explained the significance of the early American mail system and how it worked. The U.S. was far from being the richest or largest country in the world, he said, but its postal service was one of the biggest.
The postal service began in 1639 in Massachusetts, and from there, it developed into “the aspect of the federal government that people saw.”
In the 18th and 19th century, he said, “the post office had more employees than the U.S. Army and Navy put together. It was the connection between the public and government.”
Kelleher noted that in the 1790s, there were about 75 post offices throughout the colonized parts of America. “Post offices were multiplying at a faster rate than the population,” he said, and by the 1800s there were about 903.
At the time, Kelleher explained, the U.S. post office was five-times as big as France’s, double the size of Great Britain’s and “made up three-quarters of the workforce in America.”
Even though the postal service in America was one of the largest, people didn’t send or receive that many letters, he said, “the average free American received 1.3 letters and 1.5 newspapers a year in the 1830s.”
About 10 years later that number doubled, Kelleher explained, but people sent and received letters in more ways than through the postal service. He noted “there were ways to get around the post office, and without paying postage.”
Kelleher also looked at how a letter would go from the sender to its destination. He said letters would be folded up and closed with sealing wax and “the only way to open a letter is to tear the paper and break the seal,” because “there were no envelopes yet.”
In the 1840s, Great Britain began to create adhesive stamps and America quickly copied, but Kelleher said, stamps were expansive and “postal rates were by the mile and number of pages.” He added that it was typical for the receiver to pay the postage fee.
Because stamps and sending a letter was expensive, private enterprises were created that would transport mail within cities and states for cheaper rates than the post office, he explained, which “started to eat in the federal government’s revenue.”
“The private companies ballooned in urban areas,” he said, but noted that the federal government quickly bought out the private enterprises and created “a monopoly.”
After the federal government bought out the private enterprises, it was up to the post masters to create the stamps, he explained, but this did not last long and in 1847 the first government issues stamp was made.
Lorenzo Burgio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 860-584-0501 x5088.