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May – A red letter month (part 2)

History's Garden

Series: A red letter month | Story 2

"Golden Spike" by William E. Jennings is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Part one of "May – A red letter month", in the April 27 issue of The Loop newspaper, ended with the closing of the Pony Express due to the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line. While the telegraph sped up communication, it was too expensive for the everyday man. That changed with the coming of the railroad.

Lincoln's Pacific Railway Act of 1862 created the Union Pacific Railroad Company and authorized it to build a railroad west from Nebraska to connect with rail line being built eastward by the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California. Construction took six years and the two lines were joined together with the driving of the ceremonial Golden Spike on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory. With the newly completed Transcontinental Railway, mail from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, California took just over seven days.

The next innovation in mail transportation was the airplane, invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903. Man's love affair with aviation literally took off. And the Post Office Department was quick to see the potential in moving mail via plane. On May 15, 1918, they kicked off official air mail service between New York and Washington, D.C., with much fanfare that included President Wilson presiding over the Washington, D.C. end of the party. Two pilots took off at the same time: one going north from Washington, D.C., the other south from Long Island, New York. They were to meet in Philadelphia and pass off their mailbags to a second set of pilots who would complete the flights. Unfortunately, the pilot flying north from Washington, D.C. got lost and crashed his plane when he landed to ask directions. When the southbound pilot, army Lt. Torrey Webb, arrived in Philadelphia, there was no northbound pilot and no northbound mail. Webb handed off his southbound mail to army Lt. James Edgerton, who flew it in his Curtis Jenny biplane the rest of the way to Washington, D.C. At least the southbound mail made the full trip.

To mark the milestone, the Post Office Department created a series of air mail stamps featuring the Jenny biplane. The first print run of this stamp had a glitch: the Jenny was printed upside down. This stamp today is one of the most expensive and sought after stamps by collectors. In November 2023, an Inverted Jenny stamp was auctioned off for $1.7 million dollars.

From Wikipedia.

Inverted Jenny Stamp.

Between 1918 and 1926, all air mail was flown in US government owned and operated airplanes. This ended with the onset of commercial passenger air service. In 1926, the postmaster general was authorized to contract with commercial carriers to transport the mail and the government owned fleet was retired. Air mail as a distinct service was ended in 1975. This was not the end of mail traveling by air, but rather the end of the consumer being charged extra for it, since at this point most domestic mail was being transported by air anyway. Today about 6 million pounds of mail fly every day.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you've noticed that prior to this point in the article the mail service is called the US Post Office Department, not the US Postal Service. In 1970, New York City postal workers, angry about low wages and poor working conditions, organized a strike against the United States government. The strike ended without any concessions from the government, but it did lead to the Postal Reorganization Act (1971) that got rid of the Post Office Department and created the US Postal Service (USPS) as a semi-private agency for handling the mail. Since 1982, the USPS has not received any tax dollars but does remain subject to congressional oversight.

Ray Tomlison is credited with inventing email in 1971 at ARPA, a government-funded research project. The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), was established in 1958 to bring together the best scientific minds of the country and focus them on military technology. One of the first projects was to test the feasibility of a large-scale computer network. They started out linking government and academic computers. When the first packet of information was sent, the ARPA network (aka ARPANET) was born. In the late 1970s public data networks were added to ARPANET and that led to the internet that we know of today. This new form of instant communication available to the masses put quite a dent into first class USPS service. (Interestingly, the USPS itself has one of the largest corporate email systems handling more than 5 million emails a day in 2022.)

Artist Grant Wright Christian, 1937.

Waiting for the Mail.

In 1994, Amazon came on the scene and ecommerce was born in a big way. The "Sears Catalog," first published in 1888, could be considered a forerunner to Amazon. It's too bad the CEO in charge of Sears in 1994 didn't have the foresight to put the catalog online. Sears would have given Amazon a run for their money. In any case, the rise of ecommerce and all the package service that ensued has been a boon to the USPS, off-setting some of the lost first class service due to email.

Before the internet, mail delivery was an exciting part of the day. It was a bit like Christmas as you never knew what you might get – it could be a newsy letter from your great Aunt Bessy in England with an interesting stamp or three in the upper right corner!

Keep that "waiting for the mail" feeling alive by visiting http://www.postcrossing.com. This free website project helps you to send and receive postcards from people around the world. When you sign up you get an address for someone, somewhere, who is anxiously waiting to get a card. You send a postcard along with a short note to that person. This causes the Postcrossing system to give your address to someone else who then sends you a postcard. The more cards you send, the more you get back. On any given day you never know what postcard might be in your mail box!

From its inception in May of 1794, the Postal Department/Service has never stopped changing. So, what lies ahead? According to http://www.USPS.com they are "exploring cutting-edge technologies...that will help extend physical mail into the digital world..." Meanwhile, I'll be waiting by the mail box.


Postcard from Ukraine.