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By Lily La B
contributing writer 

May – A red letter month (part 1)

History's Garden

Series: A red letter month | Story 1

April 27, 2024

I hope you'll catch the play on words in the title. Turns out that May is an important month when it comes to the written word here in the U.S. Our United States Post Office was established in perpetuity on May 8, 1794, and regular U.S. airmail service began on May 15, 1918. In between these two May events we have:

• The mail by stagecoach. (1832)

• The Pony Express. (1860-1861)

• The Intercontinental Railroad, driving of the Golden Spike. (1869)

Mail is defined as letters and packages conveyed by a postal system. Four-thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, the "postal system" was composed of special couriers in the employ of pharaohs and was used only for royal communication. (Apparently the common man had "no need" to send a message to anyone.) This practice of a postal system only for the royalty continued until 1635, when English King Charles I made the Royal Mail service available to the public for the very first time. Interestingly, the postage was paid by the recipient, not the sender.

One of the earliest mail systems available to the common man was the "message in a bottle," which appears to date back to about 310 BCE when people would use water-tight wooden containers as a bottle. Prior to the 1900s, this form of communication seemed to be used mostly as a way for scientists to plot ocean currents. However, there are some documented personal bottle messages. On the night of April 15, 1912, 19-year-old Jeramiah Burke, found himself on the sinking Titanic. He emptied a bottle of holy water that his mother had given him and wrote a simple message: "From Titanic. Goodbye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork."

Used with permission.

"From Titanic. Goodbye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork."

A year later, the bottle washed ashore only a few miles from his hometown. The bottle and Jeramiah's message currently reside in the Cobh Heritage Centre museum in County Cork, Ireland.

During American Colonial times, ship captains plying the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the Colonies would carry mail, for the fee of one penny per letter. Upon arrival in the New World, the captain would take his pouches of mail to a local tavern or coffee house where people would paw through them looking for a note. The recipient could write a return missive and put it back in the pouch (along with a penny) for the captain to take back to the Homeland. In 1639, Richard Fairbank's Boston tavern became the first official post office in the New World when the Massachusetts General Court (a.k.a. the British government) ordained it as, "the place appointed for all letters which are brought from beyond the seas, or are to be sent thither."

For the next 150 years or so, the British expanded and improved mail service in the Colonies. In 1753, they appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster general and he is known for, among other things, for establishing the "dead letter office" for mail that could not be delivered. His tenure as postmaster general was cut short as his pro-Colony politics leading to the American Revolution got him booted by his British employers.

In 1788, the new Constitution of the United States was ratified and it specifically gives congress the power to establish post offices. The Post Office Act, signed by President George Washington on Feb. 20, 1792, was the actual legislation to establish the United States Post Office Department. However, the act had a two-year time limit. It wasn't until May 8, 1794, that the act was extended indefinitely, hence the "official" birthday of the post office on May 8.

In the early years of our country, mail was transported by whatever means were available: horseback, wagon, stagecoach and boat. When the first passenger trains came along in the early 1800s congress realized how important they could be for moving the mail and instructed the postmaster general of the time, "to cause the mail to be transported thereon, provided it can be done upon reasonable terms." This was all well and good except that all the rail track was east of the Mississippi river running north and south. West of the Mississippi was wild and mail service was sparce at best. In 1850, when California became the 31st state to join the United States, mail from the East Coast had to travel south by steamship to Panama, then overland across the isthmus (no Panama canal at that point), then north again by sea to San Francisco. It took weeks.

In 1858, the Post Office Department issued a contract to the Overland Mail Company to move mail across the country by stagecoach. While this was a vast improvement over boat, it still took 24 days for mail to reach the West Coast. Residents of the new state of California didn't learn they had been admitted to the Union until a full six weeks after the fact.

From Wikipedia.

Pony Express Stamp.

In 1860, the Pony Express was born and reduced the mail travel time to as little as 10 days. Though it lasted only 18 months, and was a financial disaster, the Pony Express was an amazing feat. The route, starting in St. Joseph, Missouri and ending in Sacramento, California, covered 1966 miles and included 200 stations where riders would change horses and grab a bite to eat. From Sacramento, mail was sent via boat to San Francisco. Sending a letter via Pony Express was super expensive, costing $5 for a ½-ounce letter (about $170 today!) And people today complain about spending $0.68 for a first-class stamp that will mail a 1-ounce letter.

Shortly after the Pony Express began service, Congress authorized the building of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. The first of 27,500 poles was set on July 4, 1861, and the final pole in October. This feat of construction allowed for nearly instant communication. Two days after completion, the Pony Express folded.

The real Pony Express is long gone, but the ride and the romance lives on with the National Pony Express Association ( Every June, members of the association re-ride the original Pony Express route carrying specially stamped mail. For only $5, you can participate by purchasing a commemorative letter of your own.

In the next article: More mail transportation innovation, including trains and planes, and what does the future hold?


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