One never knows what unexpected discoveries await when a history lover on a research trip takes a road that veers away from the main highway. I almost let the opportunity slip away but my inner history geek followed my senses.
It was on that road I discovered a stone marker near Brookfield, Massachusetts. At first I thought it was a grave marker with it’s curved design. It was, in fact, a remnant of the post riders trail from long ago, still telling travelers along the way: “67 miles to Boston, 30 miles to Springfield.”
What a delightful find! An ancient marker—crude but effective—pointing the way for postal riders. Imagine how welcoming those words etched in granite were to weary horsemen carrying missives to awaiting recipients.
This unexpected find encouraged me to investigate our mail system here in America that so many take for granted.
I was surprised to learn the history of our postal service in America is older than the country itself.
The Pilgrims had only been in America for 13 years when the first official mail deliveries were begun. The General Court of Massachusetts designated Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston as the exchange point for mail between the colonies and England. This was in keeping with the British tradition of using coffee houses and taverns as the mail drops.
By 1673, a trail for a post rider was set up between New York and Boston. That trail, called the Old Boston Post Road, is today part of US Route 1.
Pennsylvania was next in setting up a post office ten years later. Then colonies in the south set up their own message system between plantations, with messages sometimes carried by slaves.
A centralized postal system for all the colonies was not set up until 1691. The delivery system expanded and spread under the guidance of numerous Postmasters General, who were still under British rule.
In 1737, 31-year-old Benjamin Franklin was named Postmaster of Philadelphia. The struggling publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette made numerous improvements in the mail system, including cutting the delivery time between Philadelphia and New York in half by running mail wagons both day and night. He also devised the still-used rate chart based on distance and weight of the parcel—in principle, still used today, although I think the rates have climbed somewhat since the 1700’s.
As we all know, Mr. Franklin—who by now was called the Joint Postmaster General for the Crown—began to be involved in the cause for liberty from England, which did not sit well with his British employers. He was fired in 1774.
He was not unemployed for too long, as the Continental Congress appointed Franklin to the position of Postmaster General of the United Colonies on July 26, 1775.
The members of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia wrote:
“That a Postmaster General be appointed for the United Colonies who shall hold his office in Philadelphia and shall be offered a salary of 1,000 dollars per annum for himself, and $340 per annum for a secretary and comptroller, with power to appoint such, and so many deputies as to him may seem proper and necessary. That a line of posts be appointed under the Postmaster General from Falmouth in New England to Savannah in Georgia, with as many cross posts as he shall think fit.”
By the time Franklin was sent on his diplomatic assignment to France in 1776, he left behind a greatly improved colonial mail system with routes from Maine to Florida.
In 1790, there were 75 post offices in America. By 2018, that number grew to 34,772 retail offices with over 146.4 billion pieces of mail handled in that same year. Total delivery routes in 2018 had expanded to 231,843. Mr. Franklin would be proud.
There is a postal museum at the Smithsonian. You can visit the site here http://postalmuseum.si.edu/
Elaine Marie Cooper has two new historical fiction books that just released: War’s Respite(Prequel novella) and Love’s Kindling. Love’s Kindlingis available in both e-book and paperback. They are the first two books in the Dawn of AmericaSeries set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherlessand Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She penned the three-book Deer Run Sagaand has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. You can visit her website/ blog here www.elainemariecooper.com