By Ren Cooper
Last summer, the National Postal Museum was fortunate enough to host two fantastic interns – Aleida Fernandez and Ellyse Stauffer – who worked over the course of three months with curator and historian Nancy Pope. Each had their own research project, which resulted in interesting and informative articles currently featured on the National Postal Museum’s website.
Aleida Fernandez delved into the rich history of the Anthony Comstock’s various crusades against “vice.” In her own words: “In the second half of the 19th century, New York City was a battleground between pious reformers and the ills and sins they believed were destroying the nation.” Anthony Comstock, a devout Puritan as well as a Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office, led the fight against pornographic materials, gambling, alcohol, and what he perceived to be the evils of the lottery. While much has been written of Comstock and censorship, his obsessive disdain for the lottery is often overlooked. Gambling had been a part of America culture since the 1600s, and was generally seen as a harmless distraction as long as it was played in a civilized and gentlemanly manner. Lotteries had frequently been used as a revenue source to help fund the colonies, and early American legislators often authorized lotteries to fund schools, roads, bridges and other public works.
By the mid to late 1800s, however, many lotteries had become rife with corruption, most notoriously the Louisiana Lottery. Numerous reformers denounced them on moral grounds, including Comstock, who was convinced that the lottery was a scam to all classes, races, gender and age. Furthermore, as Comstock asserted in his book, Frauds Exposed: How People are Deceived and Robbed, and the Youth Corrupted, the promise of getting something for nothing led to laziness, and laziness was, of course, the work of the devil.
In 1872, Comstock helped found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to the supervision of public morality. The following year, he successfully lobbied Congress to pass an anti-obscenity bill, nicknamed the “Comstock Law,” which banned any federal transport of mail or other printed material that was considered "obscene, lewd, or lascivious," or relating to fraudulent lotteries, gift concerts, and other vice enterprises. The bill also prohibited the production or publication of any information related to the procurement of abortion or the prevention of conception and venereal disease. Violators were subject to a large fine, while the postmaster general received power to stop registered letters and money orders addressed to any illegal lottery. Comstock naturally made plenty of enemies, and his nearly ridiculous conviction as a self-proclaimed “weeder in God's garden” makes for a particularly astonishing saga. Read more about the battle between “good” and “evil” in Aleida Fernandez’s “All Bets are Off: Anthony Comstock, the Post Office Department and the Battle against the Lottery.”
Ellyse Stauffer explored the relationship between the United States Post Office Department and the development of routes to improve coast to coast travel in the mid-1800s. At this time, the United States was determined to expand settlements and industry out west, and consequently found it was necessary to establish a means of regular communication with the west coast. In a message to Congress, dated August 6, 1846, President James K. Polk explicitly called for the extension of the mail service. He wrote, “It is likewise important that all mail facilities, so indispensable for the diffusion of information and for building together the different portions of our extended Confederacy, should be afforded to our citizens west of the Rocky Mountains.” Mail could be transported by land, but this was an arduous and lengthy journey and only possible in hospitable seasons. Mail could also be sailed by clipper ship around Cape Horn at the tip of South Africa, a voyage of at least six months. The best option was actually to transport the mail by steamship to the Chagres River in Panama, overland across the Isthmus of Panama, then northward by steamship to Astoria, Oregon. An 1846 treaty between the United States and New Grenada (of which Panama was a state) afforded the U.S. right of way in this region.
In 1847, Congress sanctioned the Secretary of the Navy to advertise for contract bids for a mail service between New York and Panama. Later, the Committee of Naval Affairs was also authorized to contract for the construction and equipment of four steam warships, as well as for mail contracts to be established between the Secretary of the Navy and private operators. Around 1848, according to Ellyse: “The mail lines entered into the highly profitable passenger business, in addition to carrying mail, freight and intelligence vital to development.”
Originally, travelers to the West Coast had the same two bleak options as the post: either to endure difficult land routes, or embark on a six-month plus voyage on a clipper ship around South Africa. Pioneers, especially following the discovery of gold in California, were eager to find a faster way. The solution was the same as it had been for mail transport: steamships by way of Central America.
The United States Government and its steamship contractors faced numerous challenges in the form of technical problems, corruption, outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera, corporate infighting and competition, and flat out war. Eventually, the invention of the transcontinental telegraph and the transcontinental railroad took precedent when it came to transmitting important information, or transporting mail, goods and people. But in their twenty years of service, steamships had a tremendous impact on U.S. history. Read more about the growth of the steamship industry and its significance in America’s development here, as well as the role it played throughout the Civil War, in Ellyse Stauffer’s meticulous and fascinating “Making Way: Steamship Mail in the 19th Century.”
Aleida Fernandez, an Oregon native, is a graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she studied History and Music. After interning at both the National Postal Museum and Federal Computer Week, she joined the American Institutes for Research as a Project Assistant. Ellyse Stauffer recently graduated from American University, where she majored in International Studies. She is originally from Harleysville, PA, and intends to pursue a graduate degree in Historical Geography. Congratulations to both on their recent accomplishments. We will always fondly remember them, the time they spent here, and the great research that they did! Best of luck to Ellyse and Aleida!
Currently, three new interns are hard at work in the history department on a variety of intriguing projects that you will be able to check out later this year. Stay tuned!