Want to send a letter to Talkeetna, Alaska, from New York? It will cost you fifty dollars by UPS. Grabenhorst or Lipscomb can do it for less than two quarters: the same as the cost of getting a letter from Gold Hill to Shady Cove, Oregon, twenty miles up the road. It's how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country. From the moment Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775, the purpose of the post office has always been to bind the nation together. It was a way of unifying thirteen disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia.
Today the postal service has a network that stretches across America: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles, the largest civilian fleet in the world. Trucks carrying mail log 1.2 billion miles a year. The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet's mail. It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact.
Great Moments in Postal History
1775: Benjamin Franklin is appointed the first postmaster general.
1811: Fast-moving steamboats replace rafts and rowboats for mail transportation.
1833: Abraham Lincoln is appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, at the age of twenty-four.
1847: The first U.S. postage stamps are issued, featuring Ben Franklin on the five-cent stamp and George Washington on the ten-cent stamp.
1860: The Pony Express is contracted as a mail carrier until the transcontinental telegraph line is finished.
1933: President Roosevelt's New Deal sponsors the placement of more than a thousand public murals and sculptures in post offices to boost morale during the Great Depression.
1957: First semiautomatic sorting machine installed in Silver Spring, Maryland, doubling the sorting capabilities of clerks.
1958: Harry Winston sends the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution via first-class mail from New York City to Washington, D.C., for $2.44.
1963: ZIP codes introduced. 1970: President Nixon changes the postal service from government Cabinet department to independent federal agency.
2006: The last year the postal service turned a profit — $900 million.