So, think you know everything about the United States Postal Service? Probably not. Yet, the Postal Service is probably one of the most omnipresent government agencies there is, delivering mail to each and every one of us on a near-daily basis.
Here are 10 facts you need to know about the USPS:
Fact 1: The system that became the USPS predates the Declaration of Independence.
Yes, Ben Franklin — considered to be the father of the Postal Service — had been appointed postmaster general of the British Colonies in America in 1753, having served since the 1730s as the postmaster of Philadelphia. It was at this point he began establishing the network of carriers that would eventually become the USPS.
Franklin was fired from his post by British authorities for “pernicious activity” in 1774 as the resistance in the American Colonies began to ramp up. He was reappointed as the very first postmaster general in 1775 by the Continental Congress — a position which predates the Declaration of Independence by a year.
Richard Bache succeeded Franklin just a year later in November of 1776. Franklin would still go on to make something of himself, though.
Fact 2: The line of postmasters general has been unbroken since Franklin.
However, the position (and the Postal Service the postmaster general presides over) has changed over the years. The position went from being appointed by the Continental Congress in 1789, when presidents began appointing them. In 1829, postmaster general became a cabinet position. Under the Nixon administration, it was moved back to a non-cabinet position as the Postal Service became an independent entity.
Franklin still remains the most famous of the postmasters general by a fairly wide margin, proof that the position won’t necessarily vault you to fame and fortune. The current postmaster general is Megan J. Brennan. She began her time with the USPS as a letter carrier in 1986 and has worked her way to the top. She’s also the first woman to hold the position.
Fact 3: Three presidents have been with the USPS in some capacity.
Abraham Lincoln, the most distinguished president to hold a position with the service, was the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. He would personally deliver mail to those who didn’t pick it up at the post office from 1833 until 1837, when the post office closed. Harry S. Truman was technically the postmaster of Grandview, Missouri, from 1914 until 1915, but only nominally. A widow named Ella Hall did the job — and collected the $530 salary. William McKinley was a mail clerk in Poland, Ohio, before he went into teaching.
Other surprising famous people who worked with the Postal Service, according to Mental Floss, include actors Steve Carrell and Sherman Helmsley (I can only assume the latter moved on up to the East Side and got himself a piece of the pie), a young Walt Disney, an oft-intoxicated William Faulkner (the worst of the lot, Faulkner would spend his time drinking or playing cards and would sometimes throw mail away; when forced to resign, he penned a letter which stated “(a)s long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp”) and flyer Charles Lindbergh.
Probably less surprising is another oft-intoxicated author, Charles Bukowski, whose thinly-disguised exploits while with the Postal Service became the material for his best-known book, “Post Office.”
Fact 4: The USPS still uses mule-based delivery. Seriously.
Mules and horses played a major part in the formation of the Postal Service. However, we think of them as part of a bygone era. That’s mostly the case, unless you’re the Havasupai Indians of Arizona. They live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and it would be difficult for any modified mail van to make it down there. So, mules are used on a special eight-mile trail to bring mail and supplies to the tribe.
The Postal Service currently boasts 47,000 alternative fuel vehicles; it’s unknown whether the mules are counted in this total.
Fact 5: There are over 200 federal laws protecting your mail.
In spite of the fact that the USPS only recently went digital with a preview service, your mail could be a lot safer than anything that you send from your Gmail account — especially since there are a ton of laws on the books making sure nobody does anything untoward with your mail.
Among them are 18 U.S. Code Section 1700 (“Whoever, having taken charge of any mail, voluntarily quits or deserts the same before he has delivered it into the post office at the termination of the route, or to some known mail carrier, messenger, agent, or other employee in the Postal Service authorized to receive the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both”) 18 U.S. Code Section 1701 (“Obstruction of Mails Generally,” punishable by six months behind bars or a fine), 18 U.S. Code Section 1702, (“Obstruction of correspondence,” which probably carries a much stiffer potential sentence of five years because embezzlement and stealing of business secrets are covered under its strictures), and, well, you get the idea. The Postal Service reported 5,538 arrests and 4,679 convictions in 2017 alone.
Fact 6: George Washington was the first president to appear on a stamp.
This seems like pretty much a no-brainer. He first appeared on a stamp back in 1847. He’s also appeared on the most stamps of any president, as well. There are only 23 of the originals left, however; I guess collectors weren’t as big back then.
If you want, you can buy one of the originals for the low, low price of $1,100.
Fact 7: The first commemorative stamp was issued in honor of Christopher Columbus in 1893.
Martha Washington was the first woman to get her own commemorative stamp in 1902, while Booker T. Washington became the first minority to be so honored in 1940.
Today, commemorative stamps are pretty much as common as could be. In 2018, we’ll see stamps for musicians John Lennon and Lena Horne, sweater pioneer Mister Rogers and first female astronaut Sally Ride. You can also buy stamps commemorating Illinois statehood, Meyer lemons, bioluminescent life and the peace rose (“one of the most popular roses of all time,” a sneak-peak of the 2018 stamps reads).
Fact 8: The USPS handles 493.4 million pieces of mail per day.
That works out to 5,711 pieces a second. Thanks to online shopping, the Postal Service is actually still very relevant. They shipped 850 million packages during the holiday season last year, an increase of 10 percent over the previous year. This was part of 15 billion pieces of mail handled by the service between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in 2017.
In fact, thanks to Amazon, the Postal Service now delivers certain packages on Sundays — something unthinkable in most of the USPS’ history.
Fact 9: In spite of this, the USPS lost $2.7 billion in fiscal year 2017.
There are still a lot of problems with the Postal Service, as evinced by its relatively sizable loss last year. Some of the issues? According to Forbes, cost control, low-margin package deliveries and using their monopoly on letter carriage to finance these low-margin services.
While mail volume in general is down — five billion pieces in 2017 — parcel size is up (11.4 percent), which means less profit for the Postal Service.
Postmaster General Brennan thinks that the situation is manageable: “Our financial situation is serious, though solvable,” she said. “There is a path to profitability and long-term financial stability. We are taking actions to control costs and compete effectively for revenues in addition to legislative and regulatory reform. We continue to optimize our network, enhance our products and services, and invest to better serve the American public.”
Fact 10: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” isn’t the Postal Service’s motto.
In fact, the service has no motto, in spite of the famous boilerplate phrase being attributed to them. According to the Postal Service’s blog, “The phrase comes from book 8, paragraph 98, of ‘The Persian Wars’ by Herodotus, a Greek historian. During the wars between the Greeks and Persians (500-449 B.C.), the Persians operated a system of mounted postal couriers who served with great fidelity.”
While it’s not an official motto, it does appear chiseled above what’s arguably the most famous post office in America, the James A. Farley Building at Eighth Avenue and 33d Street in Manhattan.
While it may not be as vital to the nation’s functioning as it used to be, the Postal Service is still a major part of our lives — and, as long as we keep on ordering off of Amazon, it will be for a long time to come. Rest assured it will keep on shipping packages, as well as generating more interesting facts for decades, if not centuries, to come.
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