Thursday, January 19, 2017

How the Post Office Created America, by Winifred Gallagher

Today I'm looking at a history book that looks at the history of the United States Post Office. I know, I know, it seems like a really weird thing to want to read, or in this case listen to a book about. But I have to admit this was a really interesting book and I ended up enjoying it. (Although I suspect my enjoyment of the book Going Postal may have also contributed.) I will say that Gallagher is a very strong cheerleader for the post office throughout the book and comes down pretty heavily against any attempt to privatize the service (which I have to admit, does seem like a less than optimal solution), and advocates very strongly for a more open-ended mission of the post office beyond just delivering the mail, including a return of the postal savings system which operated from 1911 to 1966. I do find myself agreeing with much of Gallagher's arguments for the future of the post office but I can see how some people with differing political views would be put off.

The book is mostly a history of the post office in the United States starting with the fairly ad hoc system utilized by the thirteen colonies before the Revolution and the need for an independent, non Crown-controlled postal service for the safe delivery of revolutionary correspondence. As the United States became an independent country Gallagher attributes the Founders with a desire to create a strong and efficient postal service in the United States with discounted postage for newspapers and periodicals. The idea behind the policy of discounted postage for periodicals, Gallagher argues, was to promote and create a culture of literacy and an informed electorate in the United States. This is certainly an idealistic approach to the post office, seeing it as a unifying force within the disparate United States, but I'm not entirely sure how wide spread this sentiment really was.

The book then continues with the history of the postal service, going from its struggles in the early nineteenth century, its halcyon days in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, and then the increased struggles and decline in the late twentieth that led to reorganization of the post office in the 1970's into the United States Postal Service, a government-owned not-for-profit corporation that we know and, at least for our packages from Amazon if nothing else, rely upon today. Gallagher also muses on the potential futures of the USPS depending on which direction the government ends up taking, with a few suggestions of his own.

In the introduction to the book, Gallagher points out that very little has been written on the history of the post office since the 1930's, and much of the histories focus on the post office's glory days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So I was very interested in seeing what Gallagher had to say about the more recent history of the post office. Unfortunately I was left with the feeling that portion of the book particularly was left rather underdeveloped compared to the sections devoted to the post office's early days and its developments through the nineteenth century. Gallagher does cover the technological developments such as increased automation to allow the post office to handle ever-increasing quantities of mail and innovations such as ZIP codes to help speed delivery, but it feels very brief compared to the discussions about the post office's earlier history.

Another thing that I noticed was that Gallagher tended to place great significance on the post office's influence on the development of transportation infrastructure and other technological developments through American history. While it would be accurate to say that the needs of the post office certainly shaped some aspects of American life, I think it would be a stretch to say that it was entirely responsible for certain developments. The post office's interest in aerial transportation of mail may have helped spur the fledgling aviation industry, but I think the post office had very little influence on the development of other forms of transportation such as railroads. While the post office may have been one of many influences, it was still only one. I feel like Gallagher overemphasizes the post office's influence in many cases, making it seem like the post office was solely responsible for massive changes in American culture.

I was also concerned by Gallagher's almost blithe assertion that censorship of the mail was nonexistent in the United States when I've been exposed to information that says very much the opposite. This is probably because I listened to The Great Dissent almost right before I listened to this book so I was acutely aware of how freedom of speech certainly didn't extend to everything that went through the mail. The examples of pornography and other obscene materials, including birth control items, being seized by postal inspectors is well documented and Gallagher even mentions it in this book, which certainly undermines their argument that the postal service respected the freedom for people to send anything. Gallagher also briefly touches upon the various raids performed in the first Red Scare of 1919-1920 where socialist and communist groups were raided and prosecuted and the right of these ideologues to spread their ideas came under attack. And this doesn't even go into the much earlier conflict over the sending of abolitionist materials through the mail prior to the Civil War. Gallagher seems to undermine their own argument by pointing out examples when the mail was not considered sacrosanct which is good history, but bad for their argument.

Overall, despite its shortcomings I actually enjoyed this book. I will admit that I always seem to be interested in the development of transportation and the growth of literary culture, which is why the nineteenth century is one of my favorite periods of history to study. But I would highly recommend people checking this book out because it's more interesting than you might expect.

- Kalpar

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