Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
On a research trip to Massachusetts a year ago, I discovered a stone marker on a roadside near Brookfield, Massachusetts. At first I thought it was a grave marker with its 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 the United States is older than the country itself.
The Pilgrims had only been in America for 13 years when the first official postal 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. I rather like this idea, personally…go to Starbucks, sit and read my mail…but I digress…
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 message 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.
Today the United States Postal System has over 40,000 post offices and they deliver 212 billion pieces of mail each year, according to this link. Mr. Franklin would be proud.
"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Herodotus, 503 BC (Inscribed on the General Post Office facility on 33rd St. and 8th Ave., New York City