How Our Letters Come to Us: The History of Mail and The Post Office

How Our Letters Come To Us 1926 Book Of Knowledge Webres

While taking on my ambitious Book of Knowledge digitizing project, we stumbled across this article in Volume 8. While this article only covers the history up until the time it was published in 1926, it’s fascinating to read on U.S. Postal system got its start and how mail was delivered nearly 100 years ago.

How Our Letters Are Delivered
In Alaska, the mail carrier uses reindeer to pull the mail sledges.

How Our Letters Come to Us

This article was first published in The 1926 Book of Knowledge Children’s Encyclopedia, Volume 8.

ONE of the most interesting stories of everyday life can be told about the work of the postal service. It seems magical that a bit of paper with writing on it can be sent anywhere in the world and finally reach the one person for whom it is intended.

We may think that postal service was made possible by fast trains, fast steamships and even airplanes, so it will be a surprise to learn that long before such inventions were made, peoples of very early times wrote and sent letters.

Early Postal Systems

Indeed, the Bible tells of letters written by King David, a thousand years before Christ was born. The Assyrians and Persians, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Chinese had ways of sending written word throughout their different kingdoms.

In fact, the word post comes from a Latin word positum, which means “placed” or “fixed.”

The old Romans had posts where horses were kept at intervals along the roads which stretched like a network across the Roman Empire. At these posts the messengers carrying letters on public business would stop to change their tired animals for fresh ones. But in those ancient days royalty, members of the nobility and very powerful soldiers or merchants were the only people who sent letters because of the expense.

It was not until the sixteenth century that letter posts began for private and business purposes. Roger, Count of Thurn, established riding posts in the Tyrol, and Sir Brian Tuke became first English postmaster general.

For a long time such service was very expensive and very slow. The earliest known postal service on the North American continent was established in 1672, when Governor Lovelace of the New York colony started a monthly service between New York and Boston.

A hundred and twenty-three years later, after the American Revolution, there were 453 post offices in the United States, and mail was carried by horse, stage or sailing packet over 13,000 miles of postal routes

In those days, and for many years afterward, there were no stamps, but letters were charged for according to the number of sheets of notepaper used. In 1837 an Englishman, Rowland Hill, suggested the use of stamps, England took up the idea and the United States followed. Soon all the civilized world was using stamps.

Briefly, that is the history of our present postal system. Now let us find out what really happens to a letter that is properly stamped and sent upon its travels.

When we drop a letter into the box, at the corner of the street, or into a little window at the post office, with a comfortable feeling that “the Government” will take care of it, we sometimes wonder how “the Government” will take care of it.

Therefore we are going to read about the adventures of the letters that drop helterskelter into that selfsame box, and find out for ourselves how it is that they are sent, with the unerring flight of an arrow, straight to their destination.

The Story Of The Green Mailbox Underwood Underwood Book Of Knowledge Volume 8 1926 Webres
The Story Of The Green Mailbox. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, Book Of Knowledge Volume 8, 1926.

For some time letters had been dropping into the dark interior of the post box, in a great city at a corner where two streets meet. At first they came slowly, but as the time when the postman came to empty the box drew near, they followed one another thick and fast, like falling leaves on an autumn day.

At the last moment a boy rushed up, and in his haste dropped his letters face downward on the muddy street. He picked them up and thrust them in the box in such a state that, if they could, the other letters within would have shrunk from them with horror.

Presently, punctual to the minute, the gray-clad postman, faithful representative of the Government, appeared. He unlocked the box, swept the letters in a confused heap into the pouch which hung suspended from his shoulder, and then trudged away.

Box after box was unlocked and swept clear of its contents. When his appointed round was completed he carried the now heavy bag to the post office and gave up his charge.

How The Stamps on Our Letters Are Canceled

At the post office the bag was unlocked and its contents, with that of many other bags just like it, were poured into chutes down which they slipped to long iron tables in a room below.

There they were seized upon by men who, as they gathered them up, turned the envelopes so that the stamps faced all one way. When this was done, they were packed by a mechanical contrivance in orderly rows on the table of an electrical machine.

The man at this machine rushed the letters through it. When they came out each one bore on its face the wavy line which cancels the postage stamp and a round stamp with the date of the month and year and the name of the post office.

As fast as the letters came out of the canceling machine they were gathered together and given to men who rapidly sorted them to see whether the address said they were to be sent to someone in the same city or in the same state, to someone in another state, or to someone living in a foreign country.

Brown Bros Photography Parcels And Letters In The Post Office Volume 8 Book Of Knowledge 1926 Webres
Parcels And Letters In The Post Office, Brown Bros. Photography

After the letters had gone through this first sorting they were taken to the men at the final-sorting racks. Standing in front of the rack made, for instance, to hold the Pennsylvania letters, a man picked up bundle after bundle of letters and with great rapidity sorted them into the pigeonholes marked with the names of the post offices corresponding to the addresses on the envelopes. When this was done, the letters were tied in bundles, and they were then ready for the waiting mail bags.

Each bag had a tag which showed the time at which its train would leave. As that time drew near, the bag was locked, and with numbers of others it was loaded on a truck and sent off to the railway station.

The same thing was being done at the same time, by other men, for the letters from our box which were to be sent to every other state in the Union, to Canada, to Europe, even to far-away corners in little-known parts of the world.

Some of the letters had to wait for a ship to take them on their way. Some of them would take months to reach their destination, and might make the last part of their journey in a bullock cart in India. Some of them might be carried to their owners by runners in Africa. Perhaps the bags that had just reached the post office from a great liner held letters that had been carried on the first steps of their long journey in the same primitive way.

The Postmans Knock 1926 Book Of Knowledge Webres
“At last we hear the postman’s knock, and our little friend receives her letter. It has come safely after many exciting adventures by land and sea, and we may be sure that it is opened with great delight.”

How Our Letters Should Be Addressed

Most of the letters, of course, were neatly and carefully addressed, with the stamp put straight and square in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope. These all passed through the hands of the sorters with extreme rapidity.

A few letters, however, were incompletely addressed, or the writing was so bad that the sorters could not stop to read it without delaying the rest of the mail, and on some of them the stamp had been carelessly stuck in the wrong place and had not been touched by the canceling machine.

These were tossed aside to be picked up by another man who cancels the postage stamp with a hand-stamp or reads the badly written address, and sends the letters with incomplete addresses to the Dead-letter Office, unless indeed they have return addresses on them, when, of course, they are returned to the writer.

All this took time. Some of the carelessly addressed letters missed the first mail.

Here it is well to say that at Christmas time the Dead-letter Office is filled to overflowing with articles meant for Christmas gifts. Sometimes this is because packages are not properly tied or the addresses are not correct. Sometimes the sender has not put his or her address on the wrapper or even inside the package. Then the poor Christmas gift is hopelessly lost.

It is put away by the Dead-letter Office until the Post Office Department holds an auction and sells all such unclaimed articles to the highest bidder.

So far, we have thought only of the letters which were addressed to out-of-town places. Now we must come back to the letters which bore city addresses.

As fast as these letters could be sorted they were packed in steel cylinders. A man slipped the cylinders into a pneumatic tube, and off they went, driven by compressed air, through a little subway, to the next branch station.

There a man, stationed at the tube, picked out the cylinders meant for his own post office and sent the others on their way. Thus they went from station to station until the last one reached its journey’s end.

It is fascinating to watch the tubes open and the cylinders slide out swiftly and quietly on their steel tables as if they knew they had come home to rest.

These tubes are built only in very large cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. In most places the letters are locked up in a post-office wagon and sent letter-carriers to the branch office to be sorted by the

Some letters are meant for the district to which the post office belongs, and these are sorted out according to their street addresses by the letter carriers, who drop them into their pouches and tramp off on their rounds, carrying messages of sorrow or of joy.

Now let us go back to the bags which the train is bearing out of the city, for there is much work still to be done for the letters in those bags before they are delivered to their owners in the places to which they are addressed.

HOW AS THEY ARE CARRIED THROUGH THE COUNTRY, THE MEN WORK

You remember that we stood for a moment beside the man who sorted the letters for Pennsylvania. Now that man, and other men like him, sorted by themselves all the letters that they found addressed to Philadelphia.

The man who filled the bags put them into a sack marked for that city. This was not opened until it reached Philadelphia, but there the letters had again to go through a process of sorting.

Some of them were addressed to small offices around Philadelphia. The man man who filled the bags knew that the quickest way to send them was to let them go to Philadelphia first. So he put these letters also into by the a bag to be sorted postmen there.

Now, many towns and villages in Pennsylvania lie between Philadelphia and our post office, and it would be a great waste of time if all the letters had to be sent to the city and back again. But on each mail train there is a traveling post office.

As the train rushes through the clerks in the country the letters from this post office are busy sorting the great sacks into smaller bags. Some of the bags are meant for the small towns on the line; some of them are transferred to other trains on branch lines; some of them may even be made ready to send out on a route of the rural free delivery.

How The Mail Travels
How The Mail Travels

This work goes on ceaselessly on every mail train that runs out of our cities. Town after town, village after village, receives its bag of letters from the tireless clerks on board the post office on wheels. Very often no stop is made.

As the train comes to the station at almost full speed, a clerk standing at the side door of the car throws the locked mail bag to the platform, to be taken away by the man who is waiting there.

This man brings with him the letters to be sent on the train; but as the train cannot stop, he hangs his bag on a crane set up in the station for that purpose. As the train passes, an iron arm shoots out from the open door, catches the bag, and gathers it into the car.

Not only letters, but newspapers, magazines, periodicals of all sorts are carried in mail bags on trains. Parcels, too, are carried by the mails. Produce from the farm may be sent to the city, and in return the city merchant may send his goods to the farmer.

Large packages are not now put on the fast mail trains. They are sent on freight trains, because it has been found that it cost the railways too much to carry them on passenger trains.

What is Meant By Rural Free Delivery?

Rural Free Delivery Webres
Rural Free Delivery

Not very long ago letters were collected and delivered by postmen only in large places. Everywhere outside of the cities letters had to be taken to the post office by the writers and called for by the owners. Now, however, in many places we have what is called “rural free delivery.’

Mail-carriers drive, ride or motor through the country to collect the letters written and to leave those that have been brought into the office by the train or other conveyances. This system is a great convenience to dwellers in country places.

If we pay a few cents more than the ordinary postage rate for a letter or parcel the Government will register the letter or insure the parcel, and obtain a receipt from the person to whom it is delivered.

In such a case, the letter or parcel may be traced unerringly from the beginning of its journey to the very end. If we want to send a sum of money from one place to another the post office provides an easy and safe way of doing it. We hand in at the wicket at the post office the sum of money we want to send. The postal clerk makes out a money-order form for that amount and hands it to us. We pay a few cents for this convenient slip of paper which can be put into an envelope and sent off to its destination. We leave the station confident that the money will be paid to the person we have mentioned and that no one else can collect it.

Mail Delivery By Water
Mail Delivery By Water

How Letters Are Protected

The Government takes great precaution to protect all letters and parcels entrusted to the mails, and it makes its own locks to use on letter boxes, mail pouches and special strong boxes. That is not strange, but another form of precaution may surprise us.

In many of the larger post offices cats are kept and fed at the public expense to prevent rats from eating our letters or parcels while in the big post offices. In the great public building at Washington, D. C., ferrets are also used for this purpose.

As we look round the great post office, of which we have been speaking, we think of all the places from which the letters come that pour into it every hour of the day. They have come from western ranches, from lonely mountain farms, from small hamlets, large towns, great cities. They have been carried on horseback, in mule wagons, in jitney busses, by train, in canoes, in river steamboats, by dog train, in great ocean liners and airplanes.

History of The United States Air-Mail Service

United States Mail Service
United States Mail Service

The United States Postal Service has an airplane mail service which will take a letter in New York and deliver it in Chicago in twelve hours or in San Francisco in less than thirty-six hours.

The flight across country is made with just two stops, Chicago and Cheyenne. Very powerful searchlights have to be mounted on the postal flying fields so that night landings can be made. Other colored lights are used to mark the “air routes” and “air stations.”

For this quick delivery more postage has to be charged. It costs only a few cents to send a letter from one part of the country to another; or from our own country to the other side of the world.

Of course, if we had to pay the actual cost of sending our own letters, no one could write any letters at all. That is why the Government undertakes to send them for us. A few cents paid on each of many thousands of letters provides the cost of sending the huge masses of mail of which we have been thinking.

How Our Letters Come to Us

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