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The United States Postal Service is a wondrous American creation. Seven days a week, its army of 300,000 letter carriers delivers 513 million pieces of mail, forty percent of the world’s volume. It is far more efficient than any other mail service—more than twice as efficient as the Japanese and easily outpacing the Germans and British. And the USPS has a storied history. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, it was the information network that bound far-flung Americans together, fostered a common culture, and helped American business to prosper. A first class stamp remains one of the greatest bargains of all time, and yet, the USPS is slowly vanishing. Critics say it is slow and archaic. Mail volume is down. The workforce is shrinking. Post offices are closing.
In Neither Snow Nor Rain, journalist Devin Leonard tackles the fascinating, centuries-long history of the USPS, from the first letter carriers through Franklin’s days, when postmasters worked out of their homes and post roads cut new paths through the wilderness. Under Andrew Jackson, the post office was molded into a vast patronage machine, and by the 1870s, over seventy percent of federal employees were postal workers. As the country boomed, USPS aggressively developed new technology, from mobile post offices on railroads and air mail service to mechanical sorting machines and optical character readers.
Neither Snow Nor Rain is a rich, multifaceted history, full of remarkable characters, from the stamp-collecting FDR, to the revolutionaries who challenged USPS’s monopoly on mail, to the renegade union members who brought the system—and the country—to a halt in the 1970s.
From the New York Times best-selling author of Cod and Salt, a definitive history of paper and the astonishing ways it has shaped today’s world.
Paper is one of the simplest and most essential pieces of human technology. For the past two millennia, the ability to produce it in ever more efficient ways has supported the proliferation of literacy, media, religion, education, commerce, and art; it has formed the foundation of civilizations, promoting revolutions and restoring stability. One has only to look at history’s greatest press run, which produced 6.5 billion copies of Máo zhuxí yulu, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Zedong)―which doesn’t include editions in 37 foreign languages and in braille―to appreciate the range and influence of a single publication, in paper. Or take the fact that one of history’s most revered artists, Leonardo da Vinci, left behind only 15 paintings but 4,000 works on paper. And though the colonies were at the time calling for a boycott of all British goods, the one exception they made speaks to the essentiality of the material; they penned the Declaration of Independence on British paper.
Now, amid discussion of “going paperless”―and as speculation about the effects of a digitally dependent society grows rampant―we’ve come to a world-historic juncture. Thousands of years ago, Socrates and Plato warned that written language would be the end of “true knowledge,” replacing the need to exercise memory and think through complex questions. Similar arguments were made about the switch from handwritten to printed books, and today about the role of computer technology. By tracing paper’s evolution from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the contributions made in Asia and the Middle East, Mark Kurlansky challenges common assumptions about technology’s influence, affirming that paper is here to stay. Paper will be the commodity history that guides us forward in the twenty-first century and illuminates our times.
The founders established the post office before they had even signed the Declaration of Independence, and for a very long time, it was the U.S. government’s largest and most important endeavor—indeed, it was the government for most citizens. This was no conventional mail network but the central nervous system of the new body politic, designed to bind thirteen quarrelsome colonies into the United States by delivering news about public affairs to every citizen—a radical idea that appalled Europe’s great powers. America’s uniquely democratic post powerfully shaped its lively, argumentative culture of uncensored ideas and opinions and made it the world’s information and communications superpower with astonishing speed.
Winifred Gallagher presents the history of the post office as America’s own story, told from a fresh perspective over more than two centuries. The mandate to deliver the mail—then “the media”—imposed the federal footprint on vast, often contested parts of the continent and transformed a wilderness into a social landscape of post roads and villages centered on post offices. The post was the catalyst of the nation’s transportation grid, from the stagecoach lines to the airlines, and the lifeline of the great migration from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It enabled America to shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy and to develop the publishing industry, the consumer culture, and the political party system. Still one of the country’s two major civilian employers, the post was the first to hire women, African Americans, and other minorities for positions in public life.
Starved by two world wars and the Great Depression, confronted with the country’s increasingly anti-institutional mind-set, and struggling with its doubled mail volume, the post stumbled badly in the turbulent 1960s. Distracted by the ensuing modernization of its traditional services, however, it failed to transition from paper mail to email, which prescient observers saw as its logical next step. Now the post office is at a crossroads. Before deciding its future, Americans should understand what this grand yet overlooked institution has accomplished since 1775 and consider what it should and could contribute in the twenty-first century.
Gallagher argues that now, more than ever before, the imperiled post office deserves this effort, because just as the founders anticipated, it created forward-looking, communication-oriented,