Of the marvels French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville found in his tour of 1830s America, the postal service had them all beat.
It was “the great link between minds,” he wrote, one that bound the fledgling nation together. “It’s difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates in the midst of these deserts,” the author of “Democracy in America” said, as quoted in Devin Leonard’s “Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service” (Grove Press, 288 pp., $26), one of two new books about the USPS.
Like Winifred Gallagher’s “How the Post Office Created America” (Penguin Press, 336 pp., $28), “Neither Snow Nor Rain” sets out to chart the history and impact of the mail service in America. Both books map the post office’s growth and role in the nation’s growth. And both show how, over the years, delivering the mail shaped everything from national transportation systems to our national character, even as economic and political forces put its future in question.
The way each author gets there is a little different.
Gallagher spends much of her story focusing on the role that the Founding Fathers gave to the post office. “The importance,” George Washington wrote, “of the post office and post roads . . . is increased by their instrumentality in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government.”
One way the new American government did that, Gallagher notes, was by authorizing mail service for the entire country, not just for people with money or those living in the largest cities. Roads were built — although, as de Tocqueville wrote, they started out more as ruts — and post offices established around the country. For many Americans, Gallagher writes, the post office was their main link to the federal government.
As the post office continued to grow, it fostered innovation, using the expanding rail system to hasten delivery; setting up savings banks at post offices to encourage thrift; extending home delivery to remote rural areas; and helping bankroll the nation’s nascent aviation industry.
While Gallagher concentrates on the foundations of U.S. postal history, Leonard, in “Neither Snow Nor Rain,” takes a more anecdotal approach, encompassing some of the post office’s revealing recent dramas.
For example, in 1966, the post office in Chicago — at the time, the world’s largest mail-processing facility — was shut down, after internal labor strife, racial conflict, outdated equipment and a last-minute explosion of pre-mandatory ZIP code bulk mail ground operations to a halt. To make sure the mail got through, truckloads were sent to post offices in Milwaukee, Nashville and Kansas City to be sorted and shipped.
Particularly compelling is Leonard’s chapter on “going postal,” recounting the incidents — relatively few in number, but outsized in psychological impact — in which postal workers took deadly aim at supervisors and co-workers in the workplace. Leonard puts the incidents in context: Postal service workers faced increasing pressure to do more with less, while managers’ ability to deal with problem employees was limited by strong unions and a hiring system that disproportionately favored veterans, even those with service records showing a history of violence.
Both Gallagher and Leonard celebrate some of the post office’s most important innovators, such as John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate who under President Benjamin Harrison launched Rural Free Delivery but had many of his other innovations short-circuited by Congress.
And both authors agree that politics, fed by an intractable labor environment, did more to put the U.S. Postal Service on the ropes than email or the internet ever did.
In fact, both write, the USPS launched its own version of digital delivery, called E-COM, in 1982 — years before AOL was cheerfully telling us that we had mail. Not surprisingly, political obstacles to funding, coupled with yowls from companies hoping to get into the business themselves, forced changes in the USPS plan that made the system harder to use and more expensive. The postal service pulled the plug in 1985.
While both Gallagher and Leonard wrap up with a “can the post office survive?” feint, Leonard’s more anecdotal storytelling approach — bracketed by the tale of a guy from Queens who’s trying to visit every post office in the United States — feels more hopeful because it underscores how inexorably our national character is linked to the institution.
Besides, as Leonard points out, how else are we going to get all that stuff we order online?