Even before the birth of our nation, the Founding Fathers recognized the vitality of an interconnected post system. Benjamin Franklin’s career as a printer and a postmaster shaped his understanding of the post as a tool. The proliferation of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense through local taverns and gathering places showed the power of mass communication.
So it’s no surprise that in the very first article of the Constitution, the federal government is given the power—and the responsibility—of the post. As threats against the Post Office grow in the modern era, we look back on the many ways that it has allowed our country to grow.
Related: Lysander Spooner: The Man Who Took on the U.S. Postal Service—and Won
As Devin Leonard explains in Neither Snow Nor Rain, the US Postal Service is one of the wonders of the modern business world. It can be easy to forget or underestimate the sheer numbers with which the Post Office contends daily. In a week, USPS delivers more pieces of mail than FedEx does in an entire year of service.
The Founding Fathers pictured postal service as one of the key ways to build a common culture within a sprawling country. Though it may be easy today to think that our common culture has now taken to the internet—and in many ways, that thought would be true—the internet as we know it, filled with modern conveniences like online shopping, could not exist without the men and women in USPS blue.
Leonard’s history of the USPS explores its role in America, from Benjamin Franklin to Amazon deliveries. It’s a valuable reminder of all the value the post brings us every day, and a charming jaunt through the oddities, the woes, the joys, and the advancements of the USPS through the years.
Read on for an excerpt of Neither Rain Nor Snow, then download the book.
Otto Praeger waited anxiously on a polo field beside the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., clutching a cigar in his right hand. Short and balding, the 47-year-old Praeger had a pale, doughy face. He wore a hat and a three-piece suit that needed pressing. He looked as though he hadn’t slept, and he had every reason to be nervous. Praeger was the second assistant postmaster general in charge of transportation, and his biggest project was the U.S. Post Office’s new Air Mail Service, which was about to make its first official rounds on the balmy, cloudless morning of May 15, 1918.
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The new service would make its debut before nearly 5,000 people who crowded onto the polo field. Schoolchildren had been given the day off so they could see the flying mailmen. Praeger circulated among 500 dignitaries in a roped-off area. They included Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and an aviation enthusiast himself; artic explorer Robert Peary; Japanese postmaster M. K. Kambara; a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then assistant U.S. Navy secretary; and Postmaster General Albert Burleson, a dour 54-year-old Texan referred to by his fellow cabinet members as “the cardinal,” because even on days like this, he dressed in a dark suit and a round hat and carried a black umbrella to hide his gout-infected foot.
The U.S. Air Mail Service would be a joint undertaking of the Post Office and the U.S. Army. The Army would supply the pilots, mechanics, and planes. The Post Office would do the rest—mapping out routes, securing airfields, building hangars, and hiring an administrative staff. The public would receive speedier mail delivery, and military pilots would learn to fly long distances before journeying to France to battle German airmen in World War I, which the United States had entered little more than a year before. At least, that was the idea.
The Wright brothers had flown the first airplane only 15 years before, and while aviation had advanced considerably since then, it was still primitive by today’s standards. Airmail pilots would be transporting letters in the Curtiss JN-4H, better known as the Jenny, a single-engine biplane with an open cockpit. Jennies cruised at a maximum speed of about 65 miles an hour, barely enough to earn a speeding ticket on modern highways. Their gas tanks held a mere 21 gallons, meaning a pilot could fly only 175 miles before having to land and refuel. That wasn’t enough for Army pilots to make the 215- mile journey nonstop from Washington to New York. So Praeger had designed a relay system: a pilot would take off shortly from the nation’s capital with 6,000 letters and carry them to Philadelphia, where he would hand his mailbags to another airman bound for Belmont Park in Hempstead, New York. At the same time, a pair of Army pilots would travel the route in reverse, carrying letters from New York to Washington.
Related: Stagecoach Mary: The Postal Worker Who Became A Legend of the Wild West
There was a roar of applause as President Woodrow Wilson arrived in a car with his wife, Edith. Dressed in a finely tailored four-button suit, Wilson produced a letter addressed to New York City postmaster Thomas Patten, who would receive it later that day by plane. Wilson ceremonially deposited his letter in one of the four sacks that would be carried by Lieutenant George Boyle, an Army pilot. Wilson and Boyle posed for a picture.
Then it was time for Boyle to be on his way. He climbed into the plane. The maintenance crew turned the propeller. The engine sputtered, but it didn’t start. They tried again with the same disappointing result. Wilson became impatient. “We’re losing a lot of valuable time here,” he muttered to his wife.
Praeger was mortified. He hurried over to the maintenance crew. “What’s the matter?” he asked. He discovered that the mechanics had forgotten to “refuel Boyle’s plane when it arrived that morning. The crew swiftly siphoned gas from other planes and filled the aircraft’s tank. They spun the propeller again; this time, the engine clattered noisily to life. Praeger would later tell people that he heard Wilson sigh with relief at the sound. Boyle wheeled his Jenny around and took off. He circled the field above the cheering crowd, and off he went.
An hour later, Boyle was lost. He had tried to follow the railroad tracks north to Philadelphia, but he got confused and ended up heading south. His journey ended in Waldorf, Maryland, 44 miles southeast of Washington, where he spotted a field and tried to land. When he touched down, he flipped his plane and snapped the propeller. Boyle was unscathed, but he would go down in history ignominiously as “Wrong Way Boyle.” His shipment of mail had to be transported to New York by train, infuriating Otto Praeger.
It was an inauspicious start for the U.S. Air Mail Service. Yet within two years, the Post Office would “show that it was possible to fly coast-to-coast in little more than a day, demonstrating the feasibility of commercial aviation at a time when the private sector was too fearful to take the risk. The man behind it all was Otto Praeger. He wasn’t a pilot—he took his first plane ride several months after the service started—but he is considered the father of the U.S. airmail. “Praeger was twenty years ahead of his time,” aviation historian Henry Ladd Smith wrote in Airways: The History of Commercial Aviation in the United States. “In a day of open-cockpit planes, he dreamed of transoceanic airways and multi-engine ships.” Praeger didn’t let anything get in his way, either. Congressmen wanted to shut down his operation, saying it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Army tried to snatch it from the Post Office. Praeger was also frequently at odds with his pilots, who accused him of callously risking their lives.
Fittingly, Benjamin Franklin makes a brief appearance in the earliest days of airmail delivery. In 1785, French inventor Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries, Franklin’s friend from Boston, made the first voyage by balloon over the English Channel. They carried letters, including one to the father of the American postal service. When Blanchard and Jeffries arrived in Calais, they made sure he got it, making Franklin, some would say, the first American to receive an airmail message, another of Franklin’s many firsts.
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But aviation historians generally say the first instance of airmail sanctioned by the U.S. Post Office took place much later, on August 17, 1859, when Professor John Wise, a professional balloonist, attempted to carry mail in his balloon Jupiter from Lafayette, Indiana, to New York. We know the Post Office cooperated because Wise said so beforehand in an advertisement: “All persons who wish to send their letters to their friends in the East by balloon today must deliver them at the post office previous to 12 pm, as the Jupiter’s mail closes at that hour. The letters must be addressed ‘via Balloon Jupiter’ added to the ordinary directions and prepaid. This mail will be conveyed by Mr. Wise to the place of landing with the balloon, when it will be placed in the nearly post office for distribution.”
A crowd of 20,000 spectators applauded as Wise rose over Lafayette in his balloon. But Wise couldn’t find any wind, even when he rose 14,000 feet. After five hours, he gave up and landed thirty miles away in Crawfordsville. “Knowing that if “there were no currents below I could land safely and easily in the town, and in order to make the arrival more interesting I concluded to send my letter mail ahead,” Wise later wrote in his memoir Through the Air: A Narrative of Forty Years’ Experience as an Aeronaut. “Having with me a muslin sheet nine feet square, I attached to each of its corners strings of about five yards in length. These were tied together at their lower extremities, and to this knot was attached the mailbag, and then I dropped it overboard. It made an admirable parachute. A few minutes travel informed me that it would drift a considerable distance to the south of Crawfordsville, as there was a slight breeze below drifting it in that direction. I pulled the valve of Jupiter, and followed, and soon overtook the mail. We kept near together all the way down, as I could regulate the descent of the parachute, and both aerial machines landed within fifty feet of each other on the public road.”
A postal agent picked up Wise’s mail and put it on a New York–bound train. For more than a century, there was a debate about the significance of Wise’s flight. It wasn’t just that he didn’t get very far; nobody could find any letters from his so-called “trans-county-nental journey” that had been postmarked, which would have proved that the Post Office blessed his effort. In 1957, however, one of them turned up and two years later, on the one-hundredth anniversary of Wise’s flight, the Post Office issued an airmail stamp in his honor.
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Featured photo: Smithsonian Institution / Public domain