The Postman Always Rings Twice

That was true when I was growing up.  Twice a day, Mr. Eanes would ring our doorbell to let us know the mail had been delivered.  Three cents for a first class letter, 8 cents for airmail–that was the going rate. 

How times have changed!  Now the United States Postal Service is struggling to stay out of bankruptcy.  How they have avoided it this long is a credit to their management skills, but it’s not likely to be enough this time.  The reasons are multiple and complex, but losing $5.1 billion dollars in 2011 is certainly not sustainable.

There are historical parallels where technology has overwhelmed an established system.  The Post Office Department, the predecessor to the USPS, was chartered in May 2, 1775 and is the second oldest department of our present government.

The requirements to deliver timely service have changed radically.  237 years ago a letter from the Atlantic coast to Pacific coast might take six months to travel around Cape Horn.  There had to be a better way.  The Pony Express was an answer.  It operated from April 1860 until October 1861 from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA.  In only seven days and 17 hours after the east coast papers announced Lincoln’s election, the people in California got the news . . . via Pony Express.

In the fall of 1861 the telegraph lines reached California and a few days later the Pony Express was history.  On May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah the transcontinental railroad had its final spike driven and letters could now cross the country in record time.

When the advent of airmail in 1918 brought service between Washington and New York, a new industry was born and eventually replaced the USPS mail car seen on every long distance passenger train.  While these transportation modalities increased in their efficiency, delivery methods remained pretty much the same.  Home service decreased to once a day and was usually curbside in the cities.  Rural routes were handled by carriers, usually in their private vehicles. 

The widespread use of the internet and alternative services brought a seismic change to mail and package delivery.  Surely the days of the postal service, as we know it, are numbered.  Businesses want their payments transferred from the individuals’ banks to their banking system.  No more letters, no more stamps, no more trips to the bank to deposit. 

It’s all very efficient.  Now with email, Facebook, and other social media the personal first class letter is almost a collector’s item.  I routinely stop in my garage on the way from the mail box to drop, unopened, into the recycling bin about three quarters of what my carrier (who never is late) has delivered.  The bulk of it is unsolicited advertisements.

Post offices, more than 3700 of them, are being closed.  The jobs of tens of thousands of postal workers are on the line.  The pension funds of countless USPS employees are in jeopardy.  While Congress has authority to help the USPS through this crisis, it’s important to remember that tax money is not used for postal operation.  How they will solve the problem seems beyond the possible.  Congressional action may forestall what seems inevitable but it seems doubtful that the USPS can survive. 

No one can foresee the consequences of such a radically changed system.  Businesses that rely on direct-mail advertising will surely be affected.  While electronic transmission is available in a scale and speed that was not imaginable even a decade ago, there are many who do not have the skills or resources to take advantage of them.  They cannot be left without mail service.

When rural free delivery was introduced over a century ago, there was great opposition from merchants who feared the country folk would not come to town unless they came to get their mail.  Actually, they increased their visits to the towns; no one anticipated the arrival of automobiles. In today’s world, it might work to the merchant’s advantage to eliminate direct mail advertising, particularly if many people are as cavalier about throwing it away as I am. It would be a monumental saving in postage, to say nothing of sparing millions of trees.

Two final thoughts: The postman soon will not be ringing even once and other ways of getting information to consumers will replace it. Second, we owe a great debt to those who have worked so tirelessly in the postal system. The unofficial motto of the postal service, “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postman from his appointed rounds,” comes to mind.  I am very much afraid that changing technology and economics will render that phrase archaic.

– Hayden Hollingsworth

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