This question is a part of the museum's Systems at Work exhibit. We encourage the exhibits online visitors to leave their thoughts on these topics, just as visitors to the actual exhibit are doing.
America’s postal system is over two centuries old. It is as old as the United States itself, appearing in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, enumerating the Powers of Congress, one of which was “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”). Over those two centuries, the system grew with the nation or, more often, ahead of the nation. Congress found the postal system a useful tool for ensuring the regular and certain distribution of information across the growing nation, and for encouraging settlement into the frontier.
The Post Office Department began using pneumatic tubes to carry mail underground between post offices and railway stations in 1893. The service was used in a handful of cities before being replaced by mail trucks after the First World War.
In order to fulfill Congressional demands and the population’s needs, postal officials faced an array of challenges to the system and its operations. To answer a particular need, officials:
- Reduced (and in some cases eliminated) newspaper rates, allowing newspapers to travel into the farthest American frontiers, keeping even the most remote American in touch with the latest news. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville called the postal system a “great link between minds” noting that it penetrated into the “heart of the wilderness.” In his address to the House on November 10, 1792, President George Washington noted that the post office’s transmission of newspapers and “the circulation of political intelligence” was critical and “among the surest means of preventing the degeneracy of a free people.”
- Contracted with a variety of individuals and companies to carry mail in new ways, or through new areas. Senator Burton of Kentucky emphasized the importance of postal roads to the nation’s future in the 1850s. Calling a proposed route from Missouri into the western frontier, “a skeleton of the future railroad.” In the 1920s, the Post Office Department’s establishment of a nation-wide Airmail Service system provided the backbone for the nation’s private companies who used it to build the commercial aviation system.
In October 2001, letters containing Anthrax were mailed to some U.S. senators and members of the media. Two Washington, DC postal workers died from exposure to the poison. Americans across the country admitted being wary of opening their mail for months afterwards.
The number of challenges faced by postal officials over the last 200 years spans issues from geography to technology, personnel, finances, mixed messages through Congressional oversight, and a raft of changing needs from the American public.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. Postal Service today?