Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
On a research trip to Massachusetts a few years ago, I discovered a stone marker on a roadside near Brookfield, Massachusetts. At first I thought it was a grave marker with it’s curved design. It was, in fact, a remnant of the post riders trail from long ago, still telling travelers along the way: “67 miles to Boston, 30 miles to Springfield.”
What a delightful find! An ancient marker—crude but effective—pointing the way for postal riders. Imagine how welcoming those words etched in granite were to weary horsemen.
The history of our postal system in America is older than the country itself.
The Pilgrims had only been in America for 13 years when the first official mail service was begun. The General Court of Massachusetts designated Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston as the exchange point for mail between the colonies and England. This was in keeping with the British tradition of using coffee houses and taverns as the mail drops.
By 1673, a trail for a post rider was set up between New York and Boston. That trail, called the Old Boston Post Road, is today part of US Route 1.
Pennsylvania was next in setting up a post office ten years later. Then colonies in the south set up their own communication system between plantations, with messages sometimes carried by slaves.
A centralized postal system for all the colonies was not set up until 1691. The delivery system expanded and spread under the guidance of numerous Postmasters General, who were still under British rule.
In 1737, 31-year-old Benjamin Franklin was named Postmaster of Philadelphia. The struggling publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette made numerous improvements in the mail system, including cutting the delivery time between Philadelphia and New York in half by running mail wagons both day and night. He also devised the still-used rate chart based on distance and weight of the parcel—in principle, still used today, although I think the rates have climbed somewhat since the 1700’s.
As we all know, Mr. Franklin—who by now was called the Joint Postmaster General for the Crown—began to be involved in the cause for liberty from England, which did not sit well with his British employers. He was fired in 1774.
But he was not unemployed for too long, as the Continental Congress appointed Franklin to the position of Postmaster General of the United Colonies in 1775. By the time Franklin was sent on his diplomatic assignment to France in 1776, he left behind a greatly improved colonial mail system with routes from Maine to Florida.
In 1790, there were 75 post offices in America. That number grew to 26,615 postal offices in 2015 with over 154 billion pieces of mail handled in that same year. Mr. Franklin would be proud.
There is a postal museum at the Smithsonian. Here is the link
(This is a reprint that first ran at Colonial Quills a few years ago)