Issues of time and convenience always have bedeviled the postal service. Whose time is being wasted and who’s being inconvenienced are open questions, of course, and they’ve been debated since people first started lining up to buy stamps – which is to say, since about 1855.
While the sign on this 1916 postal truck certainly implied that the installation of mail boxes would save time for postal customers, it equally was true that curbside mailboxes saved mailmen the time and effort required to walk to the door of each home. In the end, I suppose customers and carriers then were much like customers and carriers today. As long as the mail was delivered, everyone was happy.
The technology has changed, but contemporary complaints can sound remarkably similar. On September 23, when email wasn’t being delivered to inboxes in a timely fashion, plenty of people weren’t happy. For a substantial percentage of users, Gmail had slowed to a crawl and messages had begun taking as much as several hours to reach their intended recipients. Impatience began to run rampant, and soon the Twitterverse was exploding with queries, confusion and frustration.
Twitchy, that aggregator of all things weird, snarky or interesting on the web, began documenting the complaints:
“Carrier pigeons. Message in a bottle. Tin cans with string. All more reliable than Gmail today.”
“Same thing happened to me today on Gmail. Lost a tutoring opportunity because an email showed up in my box 2.5 hours late”
“My Gmail is FREAKING OUT. Consequently, so am I.”
“Mi Gmail está loco…”
I laughed when I saw Twitchy had saved the worst for last. Someone had thrown out the ultimate insult, one based on a phrase that’s been around for years but which gained currency after the introduction of email.
Gmail not working reminds me of snail mail.
Even on a screen, the expression “snail mail” can fairly drip with that combination of ridicule, contempt and disdain that so often pops up when the U.S. postal system is mentioned. It’s an attitude I’ve never fully understood. I use email, of course. I send the occasional electronic greeting card and I can be as tempted as the next person to forward the latest cute animal photo.
But I still pay bills the old-fashioned way. I’ve been known to send postcards while traveling and, despite the flaws of the system, I’m remarkably sentimental about my post office and its employees. As for slow – when it comes to mail, I know “slow”, and it makes me grateful for what we have.
During my years in Liberia, postal service was a complicated matter. Even in the capitol city of Monrovia, delivery could be sporadic as well as slow. In the interior, the lack of passable roads during the rainy season, a dearth of governmental agencies or private companies to carry the mail and certain cultural differences made creative problem-solving a necessity.
If I wanted to send a letter back to the States and wasn’t heading to Monrovia myself, I would give it either to the hospital pilot or to a co-worker who was making the trip. Once there, it would be taken to the main post office and sent on its way. Small parcels or important documents that weren’t time-sensitive often were given to people traveling to countries where mail could be desposited with a fair degree of confidence it actually would reach its destination.
For incoming mail, the process was reversed. Letters from the States were sent to an address in Monrovia, then picked up and hand-carried up the road for delivery. Sometimes, a letter would arrive in less than two weeks. Just as often, it would take three weeks or even four. How many never arrived was impossible to know.
Remembering it now, I find the parallels to early American frontier life remarkable.
In Shambaugh, Iowa, settlers took turns going into town to collect the mail and purchase provisions. Sharing the responsibility was reasonable, since “going to town” meant traveling a hundred and twenty mile round trip to the closest post office in Savannah, Missouri. Significantly bad roads and an absence of bridges meant slow travel, as much as two or three days in each direction.
Eventually, things speeded up when a post office was established thirty-five miles away at Frank Marshall’s river crossing. In 1852, Marshall came from Weston, Missouri to establish a ferry and trading post for westward-bound travelers. When he received permission in 1854 to open a post office, he renamed the town Marysville, in honor of his wife. At the time, Marysville was the first home station on the Pony Express route west of St. Joseph, Missouri, and today its post office is the oldest continually operating post office in Kansas.
By the time Frank Marshall opened the Marysville post office, the development of a national postal system was well underway. In 1823, Congress designated all navigable waters as post roads. Mail began moving by train in 1832, and the establishment of Star Routes in 1845 allowed contractors like the Pony Express to begin moving mail. In 1855, pre-payment for letters and parcels by the sender became a requirement, and the stamp-selling business soared.
The first regular mail service along the Santa Fe trail, between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, was begun in 1850. David Waldo, an Independence physician who had become a Santa Fe trader, won a four year contract to deliver the mail once a month. He chose the Cimarron Branch of the trail as his preferred route, and guaranteed delivery in twenty-nine days.
Even as the postal system was being established and improved, people found creative ways to communicate in the gaps. One of the best-known landmarks on the Santa Fe trail was the Post Office oak in Council Grove, Kansas. Located in a campground used by travelers along the trail, the eighty-foot tree functioned as a “post office” from about 1820 to the 1840s. Messages about water sources, Plains Indian unrest, encounters with Mexican soldiers or simple family news were left in a cavity at the base of the tree. The next caravan to arrive would “clear the tree’s cache”, read the messages, update them as necessary and leave them for the next group of travelers.
Of course, today’s critics of “snail mail” aren’t much concerned with life along the Santa Fe trail. They just want their letters and parcels delivered in a timely manner, and they generally get their wish.
What often seems more irritating to people is the whole process of “going to the post office”. Picking up mail that requires a signature, buying stamps, waiting in line to mail a parcel or having overseas postage calculated certainly takes time. Occasionally, it takes a lot of time.
I can’t say I enjoy the process, but I don’t particularly mind it. I’ve been going to the same small post office long enough to know the clerks by name. We talk about their babies and their upcoming vacations as easily as customers in line talk about the weather, the fishing or the new restaurant in town.
Granted, there’s always the customer who responds to the question, “Do you need stamps today?” with other line-slowing questions such as, “What do you have? Are there any pretty ones?” I know this because I am that customer, and have been since my stamp-collecting father introduced me to the wonder of these tiny necessities.
The portion of my father’s collection that I kept, American stamps spanning a period from about 1930 to 1975, includes the whole sweep of American culture and history. Their artistry and variety is marvelous.
There are tributes to painters, writers, photographers and film-makers.
There are acknowledgements of the contributions made by chemists, mathematicians, physicists and inventors.
Cultures have been celebrated, from indigenous peoples to immigrants from around the world.
And always, there have been reminders of the great natural beauties of the land, as well as tributes to the naturalists, ecologists and preservationists who study them and work on their behalf.
More and more often, I find myself using selections from Dad’s collection as normal postage. They’re perfectly acceptable to the post office, save a bit of money and can delight a recipient, especially when I tailor the stamps to someone’s personal interests.
As common as the stamps might be, they represent a marvelous system of mail delivery and perfectly meet the criteria laid down by William Morris. “Have nothing in your house which you do not think to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” Morris said. Had he lived to see the development of our postage stamps, he surely would have celebrated their unique combination of utility and beauty. Whatever we may think of the postal system, there’s no question that our stamps are “useful bits of beauty”.