Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 8, 2011
In the more than two centuries since Benjamin Franklin was appointed the nation's first Postmaster General in 1775, the U.S. Post Office has had to adapt to new technologies to survive.
Postage stamps were first issued in 1847 and, in the spring of 1860, the Pony Express began carrying mail between St. Joseph, Mo. and Sacramento, Calif. It took about 10 days for a letter sent from one end to reach the other, a feat that was considered nothing short of amazing at the time.
About a year and a half later, the Pony Express became part of history, done in by technology. The completion of a telegraph line meant news traveled between the eastern and western states virtually instantaneously.
Free city delivery began in 1863. In 1869, technology again changed things when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and trains began carrying mail between California and the rest of the nation. Rural free delivery was added in 1896.
Husband Art's family began a close connection to the U.S. Postal Service in 1933 when his grandfather became the mail messenger in Art's hometown of Appleton, Wis. The job was carrying mail between the local post office and the trains that then carried it to and from the rest of the nation and world.
After World War II ended, Art's grandfather retired and Art's Dad bid on the job and was awarded the contract. Since the trains ran night and day every day, his Dad always had at least two other men working for him.
Art said many of his childhood memories involve going along with his father. At 18, Art was old enough to work at such a job himself and he began hauling the mail on weekends so his Dad could have more time off. He said he'll never forget being fingerprinted because the only folks he had ever seen having their fingerprints taken were the bad guys on TV shows.
When Art hauled the mail, most jobs at the post office were done by hand. The only machine used then was the stamp-cancelling machine for letters.
He said certain mail received special attention. When an issue of Playboy magazine arrived at the post office, the first sorter often slid the brown paper wrapper off and studied the magazine's contents closely. Then it was passed around to the other fellows. Once it had made the rounds, it was again slipped into its wrapper and sorted. Despite being strictly against the rules, Art said it happened routinely.
About the time he worked for his Dad, technology was again changing things. Passenger trains that carried the mail were disappearing as people began to travel more in their automobiles. Without trains, airplanes began carrying the mail. The Zoning Improvement Plan or ZIP code was also introduced in 1963. It eliminated the need for those who did the initial sorting to have so much information in their heads. Later, it allowed most of the sorting to be done by machines.
But while technology once helped the post office expand and provide greater and better service, about 50 years ago, things began to change. Private companies, such as United Parcel Service and Federal Express, began using their own trucks and airplanes to compete with - and some believe surpass - the services of the post office. 25 years ago, the Fax (facsimile) machine became an office staple, greatly reducing the volume of business correspondence the postal service handled.
But its reign was short. About 10 years ago, the explosive growth in Internet use began. E-mail soon pushed aside the Fax machine and then decimated private letter writing.
And this isn't happening only here at home. Just two years ago, we could stop in almost any German village and find a post office where we could mail our vacation postcards back to relatives and friends. But this year, we searched in Austria and Germany with little success. We still saw the traditional signs - a curved bugle placed on a yellow background - but when we followed them, we were invariably led to either just a drop box or a box accompanied by a stamp-vending machine.
But these didn't address our problem. Since we didn't know the cost of sending mail overseas and folks we asked only knew what was required to send mail within the European Union, we didn't know what stamps to purchase.
Technology to the rescue! After numerous failed attempts to locate a post office, Art resorted to the post office's website and readily located the information.
But overall, the vending-machine experience was a mixed one. Not only could it not answer our original question, but even after we found the answer, it took us half an hour to buy 15 stamps because the machine required exact change. Yet, it could generate a stamp of any value, was available nights, days and holidays and, in time, was probably far cheaper than a human clerk.
Still, whether we like these changes or not, they are essential for any postal system to survive in the short term. But the demise of the paper letter raises the question of whether or not these changes are just delaying the inevitable.
The passing of the paper message also makes me think of something that occurred about 15 years ago when Art and I were going through an old trunk on my family farm. We found a stack of letters tied with a ribbon. Each had once been sealed shut with wax. When we opened them, we discovered they were personal letters between my great great grandmother in Illinois and her parents in Canada. Knowing that I was holding the same paper they had touched and the characters on the paper were formed by their fingers meant something that I doubt reading an e-mail on a screen could duplicate.
Yet even I must admit that I liked that the Internet allowed me to write and post my columns from Europe.
And Art - the fellow with a three-generation connection with the post office? He made the decision before we left that he wasn't going to send any postcards.
"People who want to know what we are up to can read your column," he said.
True enough! Whether we're ready or not, new ways replace the old.
Left: Logos of the German (upper) and Austrian postal services; right: Art's Dad unloading the mail.
Art attempting to decipher the Briefmarke (stamp) machine instructions.