United States Postal Service History

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USPS 101: Historic Photos and Facts to Know About the US Postal Service

USPS 101: Historic Photos and Facts to Know About the US Postal Service

From Ben Franklin to #SavetheUSPS
United States Postal Service History

Joe Raedle/Getty Image

Upended by coronavirus financial distress, a presidential election gone postal and a declining load of mail to be delivered, the U.S. Postal Service has a lot going on. For a refresher course, journey through its 245-year history told through old photos and philatelic facts. 

Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general

Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general

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In an act that signaled the birth of the Post Office Department, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General of the United Colonies in 1775. His starting annual salary was $1,000.

US postage stamps debuted in 1847

U.S. postage stamps debuted in 1847

selensergen/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Seventy-two years after its inception, the Post Office Department issued its first postage stamps. For more than 20 years, stamps were only decorated with images of statesmen like Franklin. Pictorial stamps were introduced in 1869.

Stamp collecting took off immediately, and even FDR was a fan

Stamp collecting took off immediately, and even FDR was a fan

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stamp collecting turned into a fun hobby soon after the postage’s introduction in 1847. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt spent time daily on his stamp collection as a boy and as president.

Mailboxes were green, red, white and green again before going blue

Mailboxes were green, red, white and green again before going blue

© Waltercicchetti | Dreamstime.com

Before turning blue for good, mailboxes were originally green; then red; then white; green again; then red, white and blue. The United States Postal Service (USPS) adopted the deep blue hue you know today in 1970.

The longest rural delivery route is 190 miles long

The longest rural delivery route is 190 miles long

Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

Rural free delivery was made permanent in 1897, 20 years after America’s cities received free delivery. Today, the longest rural U.S. delivery route is Rural Route 001 in Sidney, Montana. The carrier travels 190.7 miles daily and delivers to 272 mail boxes.

Letter carriers first wore uniforms in 1868

Letter carriers first wore uniforms in 1868

George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

Congress authorized the use of letter carrier uniforms in 1868. The earliest uniform was made up of “cadet gray” pants, a matching single-breasted coat, a cape, a vest with seven brass buttons and a hat. Shorts were introduced in 1973 and maternity wear in 1992.

Mail moves by plane, train, truck, boat, foot, mule and more

Mail moves by plane, train, truck, boat, foot, mule and more

Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

The USPS moves mail in all sorts of ways. In this 1950 photo, a New Hampshire mail carrier delivers post via horse-drawn sled. Today, mules are the least common form of mail transit and are used exclusively in the Grand Canyon.

Black Americans have historically contributed to the postal service

Black Americans have historically contributed to the postal service

Harris & Ewing Photograph/Library of Congress

Until 1802, the employment of any Black person as a mail carrier was banned by Congress, and enslaved people worked for mail transportation contractors. But throughout the 1800s, more than 300 letter carriers were Black, including James B. Christian of Virginia, the earliest known Black letter carrier.

Women were postmasters a century before they voted

Women were postmasters a century before they voted

Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

In 1792, Sarah DeCrow became the first woman appointed postmaster under the U.S. Constitution. By 1904, 100 pioneering women carried mail in rural areas. In 2015, Megan Brennan, the first woman postmaster general, took office. Today, women make up nearly 46% of the USPS workforce.

Today, the USPS is made up of a diverse workforce

Today, the USPS is made up of a diverse workforce

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The USPS workforce is 48% minority groups, including 26% Black, 11% Hispanic or Latino and 7% Asian. More than 97,000 veterans work for USPS as well as 32,000 people with disabilities.

The Inverted Jenny is arguably America’s most famous stamp

The Inverted Jenny is arguably America’s most famous stamp

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The infamous Inverted Jenny stamp’s origin can be traced back to the week of May 6, 1918. The stamp is known and loved for its mistakenly upside down biplane, and just one sheet of 100 Inverted Jenny stamps was produced. While the entire sheet sold for $24 in 1918, a single inverted Jenny stamp has recently sold for more than $500,000.

ZIP codes have only been around since the ‘60s

ZIP codes have only been around since the ‘60s

Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

The ZIP code was introduced in 1963 with the help of a new Post Office Department cartoon, Mr. ZIP. ZIP codes were intended to help sort mail quicker.

There are 41,701 US ZIP codes

There are 41,701 U.S. ZIP codes

Library of Congress

Today, there are 41,701 ZIP codes used to help postal workers sort mail. Designated ZIP codes range from 00501 in Holtsville, New York, to 99950 in Ketchikan, Alaska.

The stamp vending machine was made to stop disease spread

The stamp vending machine was made to stop disease spread

Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

The American public was introduced to stamp vending machines at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, there was widespread concern about the spread of disease via stamps stored in germy environments, such as in a drawer with loose change. Vending machines kept stamps stocked in a sanitary box and eliminated hand-to-hand contact, thus offering a safer alternative.

A workers strike forever changed the US postal system

A workers strike forever changed the US postal system

Library of Congress

In March 1970, 200,000 postal workers went on strike in protest of poor working conditions and low pay. The end result: some undelivered mail, a declared national emergency and the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. The act established the United States Postal Service as an independent agency and granted the postal workers union rights to negotiate.

The holiday season has been peak postal season for over a century

The holiday season has been peak postal season for over a century

-/AFP via Getty Images

In this 1961 photo, people queue in front of a giant mailbox in New York to quickly drop off their Christmas letters just over a week before the holiday. The first reports of a holiday postal rush date back to 1887.

Christmas stamps were introduced in 1962

Christmas stamps were introduced in 1962

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After years of requests, the Post Office Department released its first Christmas stamp in November 1962. By the end of the year, 1 billion such stamps were sold. The Christmas tradition has continued and a new holiday stamp has been sold each year since.

This ‘90s Elvis stamp is the best-selling commemorative US stamp

This ‘90s Elvis stamp is the best-selling commemorative US stamp

FILES/AFP via Getty Images

The USPS let the people decide whether the Elvis commemorative stamp should include a younger or older depiction of the famous musician. Younger won and the stamp soon became the best-selling U.S. commemorative stamp to date.

You can visit a museum dedicated to the postal service

You can visit a museum dedicated to the postal service

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

To see the largest collection of stamps and other postal history material in the world, head to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. The free stamps are just a bonus.

In California, US Postal Service solar panels power 5,000 homes

In California, US Postal Service solar panels power 5,000 homes

Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

On top of the USPS Los Angeles mail processing facility rest 38,000 solar panels, enough to provide sustainable energy for 5,000 homes.

Recently, the Postal Service has been losing money

Recently, the Postal Service has been losing money

© Alexis Grimsley | Dreamstime.com

In recent years, the USPS has lost more than $78 billion due to declining mail volumes and rising costs. Since 2000, the number of mail pieces delivered by USPS has dropped by 31.4% from 207.9 billion pieces of mail in 2000 to 142.6 billion pieces in 2019.

While total mail pieces has dropped, packages are up

While total mail pieces has dropped, packages are up

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In 2019, the Postal Service's shipping and package volume was 6.2 billion, a steady increase over the past five years from 4 billion.

Americans love the USPS more than other federal agencies

Americans love the Postal Service more than other federal agencies

VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 91% of Americans have a favorable view of the Postal Service. That’s a higher percentage of favorable views than for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security and all other federal agencies included in the survey.

Today, the Postal Service is a large operation

Today, the Postal Service is a large operation

VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

There are more than 31,000 post offices in the United States, 160 million delivery points and more than 7 million USPS employees. More than 472 million pieces of mail are processed and delivered every day.

33 million people voted by mail in 2016

33 million people voted by mail in 2016

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In 2016, 24.8 million people voted via absentee ballot. Another 8.2 million voted by universal mail, making for a total 33 million — a quarter of the votes — cast by mail.

40% of registered voters plan to vote by mail in 2020

40% of registered voters plan to vote by mail in 2020

LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

According to a recent Economist/YouGov survey, 40% of registered voters plan to vote by mail during the 2020 presidential election. Another 41% plan to vote in person on election day.

Today, activists rally around #SavetheUSPS

Today, activists rally around #SavetheUSPS

KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

In this August 2020 photo, people demonstrate outside a USPS location in Los Angeles. The American Postal Workers Union anticipates the steep drop in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic will cause the Postal Service to run out of money in 2021. The union, as well as members of the public, have called for federal financial relief. The pandemic has had widespread financial repercussions, and these state economies are most at risk

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