U.S. Post Office Department (1792)

The Post Office and universal mail delivery in America owe a great debt to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin became postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and then joint postmaster for all of the colonies in 1753. Franklin made many improvements to mail delivery, including the standard rate “penny post,” but the Crown relieved him of his duties in 1774 for being sympathetic to the growing rebellion against Great Britain [1]. Subsequently, the Continental Congress made Franklin its first postmaster general in 1775 [2]. With the new Constitution of the United States, a permanent federal Post Office Department was created on February 20, 1792 [3].

The Great Depression had a strongly negative impact on the Post Office. In his 1933 report to the President, the Postmaster General noted that, “Never before in the history of the country have economic conditions been reflected in any substantial reduction in postal volume…The Post Office Department is now confronted with the problem of maintaining its revenues…” [4]. With economic revival, the financial situation improved dramatically. For fiscal year 1935, the postmaster announced “an increase in the postal revenues of $44,062,136.17” and a “substantial increase in the volume of mail” [5]. The following year he reported another $35 million increase [6]. By 1940, Post Office earnings were at “an all-time high” [7].

The Post Office greatly benefited from the enormous infrastructure investments of the New Deal. For example, emergency appropriation laws in 1934, 1935, and 1936 provided about $188 million “for the emergency construction of public buildings throughout the country, the projects to be selected by the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the Treasury” (about $3.2 billion in 2014 dollars) [8]. This program meant that “three times the number of post offices were built in this period as had been built in the previous 50 years” [9]. Hundreds of cities and towns across the country still utilize the handsome post office buildings of the New Deal era – though many people mistakenly think they were built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) rather than the Treasury Department.

For New Deal policymakers, merely adding new Post Office buildings was not enough. They saw an opportunity to display America’s heritage through murals, sculptures, and woodcuts. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (later called the Section of Fine Arts) beautified hundreds of new and old post offices with scenes from the nation’s history, featuring such themes as land settlement, farming, transportation development, city life, and Native American cultures. This New Deal artwork was intended to lift the spirits of the people and give them a shared sense of community during the troubled times of the Great Depression [10].

President Roosevelt appointed two postmasters general during his presidency: James A. Farley (1933-1940) and Frank C. Walker (1940-1945) [11]. The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 terminated the Post Office Department, effective July 1, 1971, and transferred its functions to the semi-private U.S. Postal Service [12]. Today, the Postal Service faces further privatization pressures, and many of the historic buildings and artwork that were created for the American people are threatened with sale and closure to the public, if not outright destruction [13].

Sources: (1) “The history of the United States Postal Service,” U.S. Postal Service, http://about.usps.com/publications/pub100/pub100_002.htm, accessed September 10, 2015. (2) Ibid. at http://about.usps.com/publications/pub100/pub100_003.htm, accessed September 10, 2015. (3) “Records of the Post Office Department,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/028.html, accessed September 10, 2015. (4) Annual Report of the Postmaster General, fiscal year 1933, p. vii. (5) Annual Report of the Postmaster General, fiscal year 1935, p. xi. (6) Annual Report of the Postmaster General, fiscal year 1936, p. xi. (7) Annual Report of the Postmaster General, fiscal year 1940, p. xi. (8) Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, fiscal year 1937, p. 47. (9) “Historical and Architectural Development of Postal Services and Post Office Construction,” National Register Bulletin, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb13/part2.htm, accessed September 10, 2015. (10) See, e.g., “New Deal Art: Eager and Alive,” U.S. Postal Service, http://about.usps.com/publications/pub100/pub100_030.htm, accessed September 10, 2015, and Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. (11) “List of Postmasters General,” U.S. Postal Service, http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/list-of-postmasters-general.htm, accessed September 10, 2015. (12) See note 3. (13) See, e.g., David J. Brown’s February 12, 2014 letter to the New York Times editor, “Endangered Post Offices, on Main Street USA,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/opinion/endangered-post-offices-on-main-street-usa.html?_r=0, accessed September 10, 2015 (Mr. Brown is the Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). (Note: Annual reports of the Postmaster General and annual reports of the Secretary of the Treasury can be found at http://www.hathitrust.org/.)