mailbox

The United States Postal Service (USPS, aka the Post Office, U.S. Mail) was converted, shortly after its initial establishment in 1775, to a cabinet-level agency, one of the departments of the Executive Branch of the United States federal government. Since the 1970s, however, it has been an independent entity run by a “non-partisan” Postmaster General who is appointed by and who answers to an “independent” Board of Governors. But what once was true is no longer so.

Originally established during the Second Continental Congress period of the formation of our nation, the USPS served as the only means of communication between the participants in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia (and, eventually, between the elected representatives in our new American government), and their colleagues and families back home. One thinks of quill-penned letters flying up and down the Atlantic seaboard in leathern pouches aboard foam-flecked panting horses.

But the Founding Fathers thought further: among the critical purposes for establishing a national mail service was to subsidize the circulation of newspapers from the several colonies throughout the land on a non-preferential basis and at extremely low cost. This way, ideas and opinions from all perspectives could circulate throughout the 13 colonies – a political imperative according to James Madison. By speaking truth to power, newspapers of all leanings, distributed nationwide, would constitute “amongst the surest means of preventing the degeneracy of a free people,” said Speaker of the House, Connecticut’s Jonathan Trumbull. This was the colonial era equivalent of the TV hand-held channel changer: Fox News, National Public Radio, and everything in between at the push of a button.

In 1775, the array of opinions was found at the local tavern where, by the unfolding and shaking open of several different newspapers one could read the regional and philosophical perspectives on the possibilities and implications of, among other things, declaring independence or the Monroe Doctrine. Plus, today we can fill out ballots that we receive by mail, and send them back to the vote-counting stations…provided no one is interfering with the functioning of the USPS. Consider what has become of this independent, politically neutral mail service.

As it is currently constituted, the Postal Service is run by an executive director, the Postmaster General, and a Board of Governors, all of whom are intended to be expert in the operations and economics of running a mail service. This board was established by congressional act that separated the USPS from the Cabinet in the 1970s, to render the USPS free of political shenanigans. The board is required to seat both Republican and Democratic individuals among its members. They are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate to serve for seven-year terms. When there is a need for a new Postmaster General, the board selects one from among a pool of nominees that may include mail service professionals they have vetted themselves, as well as any nominee proposed by the President. Until the current Postmaster General took office, all his predecessors had come up through the ranks of the USPS. The current Postmaster General’s readiness for the job, apart from having been proposed by the President, comes from his having been the chief executive officer and a major investor in several private package handling and delivering businesses that compete with the USPS, and a very large contributor to the President’s campaign finance fund.

Anyway, the USPS is not a private business. It is a public service, not dissimilar to the Coast Guard, the Office of Management & Budget, or the Centers for Disease Control. The USPS has no mandate to make a profit or even to break even.

So the USPS delivers letters, vote-by-mail ballots (to us), and filled-in ballots (to our town halls). It also delivers medicines to disabled veterans, my replacement hearing aid batteries, legal documents requiring prompt action, catalogs and news magazines, bills and our payments thereof, time-sensitive ads, announcements and invitations requiring early responses, live honey bees, and new-born poultry, your online shopping packages that FedEx, UPS, and other delivery services have arranged with the U.S. Mail Service to take to their final destinations, and our paychecks, pension checks, and Social Security checks. None of which we will tolerate being delayed.

Nevertheless, the cost of serving the public has grown. As Todd Smith observed in the Aug. 25 Caledonian-Record, “The post office lost $78 billion since 2007 as digital communication largely replaced the anachronistic mail delivery system…[M]ail parcels are down 33 percent [while] USPS delivery points increased from 146 to 160 million locations…Less mail going to more places.”

But only about one-third of the USPS’s real increase in the cost of doing business is concerned with the handling and delivery of mail. Two-thirds of the increase comes from the power of the USPS workers’ union to perpetuate contractually binding and congressionally supported salary increases, unusually good health care, and astounding retirement pensions. I am reminded of earlier days when those who’d lived through the Great Depression and the privations of wartime life were pretty content to have a salaried job and a day and a half off every week.

The USPS was founded to deliver letters and newspapers as mentioned above, but it was quickly adapted to deliver non-paper objects as well. For about a decade in the late 19th century, the USPS could and did deliver babies – and not as the midwife. The USPS assured the safe transport of an infant or toddler from one address to another, the postage being assessed based on distance, travel fares incurred, and salary for an accompanying suitably trained adult. This service lasted but briefly and has been replaced with the delivery of other living things – among them, hives of honeybees and containers of waterfowl and barnyard chicks. Our daughter only recently took delivery of some Buff Orpington, Wyandotte, and Araucana chicks that arrived in her town by mail. My wife Sharon, in February 2014, paid $4.12 to mail a rock to me, as is. She’d found a perfectly egg-shaped, perfectly smooth red granite stone not quite as big as a baseball. She wrote my name and address on it in indelible ink and handed it to the Postmaster in Barnet. It was in our mailbox on Valentine's Day with a postage meter label, wrinkled, still glued firmly to it.

We grew up, Sharon and I, in the 1940s, a mile from each other in the same village. We’ve been friends for life, marriage partners for the second half of it. In the village of our childhood, Jimmy Lyons was the letter carrier. He came afoot to our houses twice a day, mid-morning and again mid-afternoon (only once on Saturday). During the War, when Sharon’s dad was a Navy officer on a destroyer in the Pacific, if Jimmy found that he was carrying a letter from a Pacific Fleet Post Office, he’d deliver that letter first. His thick brown cowhide mailman’s pouch must have weighed more than the mail he carried in it. He refilled it several times on his route, stopping to pick up mail stashed and waiting for him at blue, domed, mail storage boxes strategically located on sidewalks at key street corners throughout his route. Both storage and slotted mailboxes are still in use; we pass by them daily, right out in front of the post office, and by the Walgreen’s Drug Store and the Union Bank on Railroad Street in St. Johnsbury.

Jimmy Lyons had to arrive at our childhood village Post Office very early to help his colleagues sort mail into piles for each letter carrier’s route, and then Jimmy had to sort all the mail for his route into smaller piles for the man in the truck to stash in the storage boxes Jimmy’d be stopping at for refills. We had no zip codes and sub-zipcodes then, so sorting depended on the letter carriers’ knowing not only the streets in their route but also the names of the streets in their entire town. By the time he was in mid-career, Jimmy could have done his route sorting just by seeing the last names of recipients.

My Yankee grandfather, Harry Perkins, lived in a very small village, Danbury, N.H. I’ve written in these pages before about the arrival of the telephone there. When I was a child, the Perkins place had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and no telephone. There was a stream running diagonally through the dirt-floored cellar, in which my grandmother kept a milk can, a butter crock, and any foodstuffs that had to be kept as cool as possible semi-immersed in the stream. The house had been built over a hand-dug well, right under the eventual kitchen sink. Beside the sink was a black cast-iron pump, and beside it a gallon jug of water needed in dry seasons to prime the pump. As my childhood progressed, so gradually did improvements. By the time I went off to college, the Perkins place was right up to speed in what was then the latest technology: a thermostat-driven furnace, indoor plumbing with both hot and cold water, electrical outlets in every room, and a telephone with a crank to generate power enough to jingle awake Flossie Bean, the operator, in the village. Once a day, late mornings, Merle Phelps, in his milking overalls, drove his 1940-era Plymouth coupe (often the only car we’d see) to deliver letters and postcards addressed to “Harry Perkins, Danbury, New Hampshire.”

In a population of Danbury’s size, no more complicated address was needed. The town didn’t grow, but the postal services people down country couldn’t believe that Merle could sort and deliver the town’s mail without street addresses to help him plan his RFD route. So my grandparents were informed they had to include a street address. But some back roads then had never had names. Paul & Deedee Wentworth’s road was known as the Wentworths’ road. My grandfather’s road had a name and for a long time. Three or four miles up into the hills, where his road petered out, there had once been a sawmill next to an unnamed pond. The eroding sawdust pile and natural processes were eutrophying the pond, making it uninhabitable even to trash fish.

Hence Poverty Pond.

And hence his address: Harry Perkins, Poverty Pond Road, Danbury, New Hampshire. He never did get a mailbox number. If he had, it would’ve been “One” for his farm was the only place on the road. But he did get a zipcode before he died, so that mail from any distance away would find its most efficient way to the Danbury Post Office and thence to the only house on Poverty Pond Road.

My parents received the Saturday Evening Post when I was a kid, and it was about the bulkiest thing Jimmy Lyons carried. No ads, no catalogs, except perhaps once a year from Sears & Roebuck. U.S. Mail in the first half of the 20th century consisted predominantly of letters or postcards (in the 1940s a postcard stamp was a penny, a letter stamp three cents). No fliers or ads, for advertising hadn’t yet discovered the effectiveness of cheap printed bombardments. If someone needed to promote a product or service, they did so in the newspaper (which I, on my bike, tossed somewhere close to people’s front porch steps at 6 a.m.).

In my childhood village, we all lived within a walk or bike ride of The Cove, a substantial shallow bay off the Charles River that froze up solidly enough to bear a World War II Jeep with snowplow and other gear for maintaining ice and a couple of hockey rinks. The Cove was close enough to our village center to permit off-duty policemen and firemen, store clerks, local tradesmen, and the young priests at Corpus Christi and St. Bernard’s (most of them Canadians), to play pick-up hockey games at lunchtime. The letter carriers played, too, between their morning and afternoon rounds. The youngest kids got stuck playing goalie, but the letter carriers, sturdy of leg and sound of the wind, were stick-handling wizards and great passers. Everyone wanted to be on a team with one of them. Jimmy Lyons played until he was in his sixties.

My first wife’s grandmother, widowed and retired from farming, moved to California to be with some of her kinfolk. In due course, she died there, was cremated, and her remains, in a box wrapped in brown wrapping paper, secured with stout string, and properly labeled with both destination and return address, somehow got mishandled, the address labels marred. She got lost and remained missing in the United States Postal System for nearly a decade, only eventually to be discovered gathering dust on a shelf in New York at the Dead Letter Office.

Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who worked at Northeastern University and Harvard. After moving to Vermont with his wife, artist Sharon Kenney Biddle, he co-led the Wilderness Program at St. Johnsbury Academy and taught writing at Lyndon State College.