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Friday, January 16, 2015

Before the Post Office was the Postal Service

I just hate it when I do my research, get my story written and published, and then find out one of my details is historically incorrect.

I recently finished reading my second novel set in the 1800s in which the authors referred to the U.S. Postal Service delivering mail. Oops! That is not historically correct. In fact, novels set in more modern times may run into trouble describing mail delivery if the author isn’t careful.

Most people use the terms POST OFFICE and POSTAL SERVICE--with or without the U.S. in front--interchangeably. Part of the reason is that when we go to our local building where we mail letters and parcels or buy stamps, we call it the Post Office even though that facility is part of the Postal Service system. Also, many of us were alive when mail service was still part of the federal government Post Office Department.
Post Office Building, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1930s

However, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) did not come into existence until the passage of the Postal Reform Act in August, 1970. Yes, you read that correctly: NINETEEN seventy. The U.S. Postal Service officially started to operate as an independent non-profit corporation in 1971. Before that, it was the Post Office.

These details can be important to your writing if you want to stay credible. For example, in my novel, Family Secrets, my main character’s grandfather, Mike Carpenter, returned from the Vietnam War in 1968 and got a job delivering mail as a city carrier. Assuming he began work within months of being discharged from the Army, he would have been hired by the Post Office Department under the old Civil Service program. Years later when he retired, he was employed by the U.S. Postal Service. Whether I describe him as working for the Post Office or the Postal Service depends where in time I am in the story.

What many people do not realize is that because of that change in 1971, the Postal Service, unlike the old Post Office, does not receive any tax revenues to operate. Those who work for the Postal Service are still federal employees although the contracts for the different postal crafts often have slightly different provisions than other federal employees. But, the Postal Service is expected to operate on revenues it receives from sales and services provided.

Another key change took place about the same time this Act was being passed. Starting in 1969, postmasters and rural letter carriers were no longer awarded their jobs based on political patronage. When I started as a rural carrier, I worked with some old-timers who were proud that they had been awarded their positions by their congressman. When I applied for the job in 1989, I took a civil service exam and waited to be called for an interview based on test scores, no congressman involved. In order to get my job, I did not need to worry about whether or not I had served in the armed forces (although veterans do get point preferences that gives them a bit of an edge), belonged to the same political party as my congressman or met one or more criteria that are often involved in political patronage situations.

Having a character in your story being awarded a postmaster position due to political patronage--or not, because of political differences--can provide an interesting plot element. Just make sure the timing is right for this to occur.

Postal Clerks on railroad Post Office cars 1921
In Family Secrets, Mike’s daughter tells how her father likes to visit the rail museum in Old Town Sacramento. His favorite car was the mail car. For years, the Post Office used trains to transport mail. When his daughter was young, he would describe to her how the postal clerks who worked in railroad cars sorted mail for the different cities similarly to how he prepared the mail for his route.

This 1921 photo of a mail car from the USPS site I found interesting. After numerous mail thefts on trains after World War 1, in 1921 the Post Office started having the clerks wear pistols while they worked. They were given orders to shoot to kill any would-be thief in order to protect the mail. Up until 1939 there were also times U.S. Marines rode the trains to protect the mail.

Trust me, times have changed. In today’s world, if postal employees show up at a Postal facility toting guns, they can expect to be arrested and probably lose their jobs.

More Postal trivia:
1888 City Carriers in New York City

If you are writing in a historical setting, don’t have your characters in the city receiving mail delivery before 1863. It didn’t happen.

Early Rural Free Delivery carrier

As for Rural Free Delivery, the very first free delivery to folks living in the country started in 1896 as an experiment and did not become an adopted practice until 1902.

If you are talking about addressing letters, the Post Office started adding zones to their addresses in 1943, but Mr. ZIP did not come along until 1963. ZIP+4 made its debut in 1983.

Last but not least, keep in mind that the Postal Service does not accept, transport and deliver packages. They are called PARCELS. 

You can find a timeline of historical details about mail delivery on the USPS site at:

You can also find a concise timeline on postal history at this website:

For a more complete history of mail delivery in the United States, visit the USPS website at:
Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols. Her novel, Family Secrets, may be purchased from Amazon, Nook and Smashwords.