Saturday, February 9, 2013

In 1775

Just as I got up from dinner this day yours of the 15 & 18 came to hand; No desert was ever more welcome to a luxurious palate, it was a regale to my longing mind: I had been eagerly looking for more than  a week for a line from the best friend of my heart.
   [Mercy Otis Warren to James Warren, September 21, 1775]

The roots of postal services go deep—and were closely linked with what we call the media today. Mail delivery was typically assigned to newspaper publishers in for what seems a practical reason: they were already delivering paper goods to clients. Benjamin Franklin became the post master of Philadelphia in 1737 because he was a publisher. The post master had the right to decide which newspapers would be delivered free of charge; indeed, Franklin’s predecessor, also a publisher, had barred Franklin’s own Philadelphia Gazette from moving by mail. Much later, as the first Postmaster General of the United States, Franklin did away with this right and decreed that all papers would be delivered, each for a small fee.

The earliest post offices? They were designated coffee houses and taverns. You went to check there to see if you had mail. The first such was Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston, designated in 1639, principally as a depository for mail going to or coming from Europe. Distribution remained informal for a long time; individuals were asked to carry mail as occasions arose. The Post Office as we know it was established in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress (in July). It took some significant time before the services developed.

The letter I cite from, published in a favorite of mine, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, presents in its initial paragraph how the late colonial mail system (if such it can be called) performed. Mercy Warren, who was a poet and writer married to a politician, reports receiving two letters from her husband, the first written six, the second three days before the letters arrived. She was living in Plymouth, MA; he was attending the Massachusetts Congress in Watertown, MA some 40 miles away. Not bad, you might say. They didn’t have trucks then. These days, I’d guess, it would take a day. And in 2075? Now that’s something for futurists to ponder.

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