By Nancy Pope, Historian & Curator
How many times a day does your letter carrier stop by with your mail? Well once, of course. It might surprise you to learn that before 1950 carriers in some cities made several trips to homes and businesses each day. For decades the prevailing rule for mail deliveries was set in Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book. It stated that carriers would make deliveries “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” The phrase was left open to interpretation by postmasters. Just what did “the public convenience” require in their cities?
Postmasters were directed to look to the city’s business needs for direction. While several cities had numerous deliveries during the day for businesses and homes, businesses always had more deliveries on any given day. In one city predominantly residential areas might have two or even three deliveries a day. Businesses in the same city would have four or five deliveries because the public convenience was usually interpreted as keeping American businesses running at peak efficiency.
Free City Delivery began in 1863. As the service grew, postmasters began to get a feel for their city’s needs and began directing their carriers to offer more frequent service where needed. At the same time, by the 1880s carriers were agitating for better working conditions, including the number of hours they would be required to work on any given day. As new labor laws came into effect, postmasters had to juggle the demands of “public convenience” with the carriers’ demands and limited budgets for hiring additional or part-time carriers.
By the first decade of the 20th century some cities saw three to five daily deliveries to business areas, but often no more than twice a day deliveries to residential ones. America’s businesses were more than happy with this arrangement. In his Annual Report to Congress in 1911, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock noted that the policy of reducing residential deliveries in order to increase those to business districts was “almost universally approved by business men, who are willing to have fewer deliveries at their residences in order to obtain more frequent service at their places of business.” 
Life became more complicated after January 1, 1913. That’s the day that the Post Office Department introduced Parcel Post Service. In addition to the traditional core makeup of mail – letters, newspapers and magazines – came packages, millions of them! While carriers could take a good block’s worth of mail in their satchels before 1913, now they were responsible for piles of packages, including some that were perishable! To keep that mail moving (and received quickly) postmasters added wagons, and later trucks, with carriers who brought packages in separate trips.
By 1922 businesses in larger cities could receive as many as seven daily deliveries, in smaller cities, three or four. Brooklyn and Philadelphia both managed to make seven deliveries a day to some (but not all) of their business districts. In Brooklyn, seven out of 61 business delivery sections received seven deliveries a day. In Philadelphia four out of 139 businesses received that top number of deliveries. New York City maxed out at six deliveries a day to some of its business districts, and Chicago’s busiest business districts received five deliveries a day. Households in large cities continued to top out at three deliveries a day. Most saw the mail come to their doors once or twice a day.
Mail volume skyrocketed in the years following the end of the Second World War. Postal officials scrambled to respond to the unprecedented growth in mail volume. In 1949 there were 86,359 full-time city delivery carriers bringing mail to businesses and households across the country. Their numbers were supplemented by 32,373 substitute city carriers who were used to cover absent carriers or when mail volume was unusually large.
Something had to give. Postmasters would soon be unable to keep their carriers on a constant loop between post offices or relay boxes and household and business mailboxes. The options were limited. Hiring even more carriers was costly and keeping the current carriers on their routes longer ran headlong into labor law limitations. Postmaster General Jesse Donaldson chose to reduce deliveries. In 1949 four trip routes were reduced to three in business districts, and the residential areas with three trips a day were reduced to two.
On April 16, 1950, the Postmaster General ordered residential deliveries in all areas down to a single trip per day. Businesses continued to receive additional deliveries, although Saturday deliveries would always be one less than the rest of the week. By 1969 Postmaster General Winton Blount noted in his Annual Report that few business areas continued to require multiple daily deliveries. New York City managed to hang onto two deliveries a day in some areas through the 1990s, but standard practice today is a single delivery per day – business or residential.
 U.S. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, February 2, 1911, p. 21