The first Christmas card of the year came in the mail, from my hyper-efficient cousin as usual, and with that my sense of seasonal anticipation has officially begun. Opening a festive envelope that contains a happy photo and best wishes is much more satisfying than receiving an e-card. A card in hand, tangible and passed around and displayed, seems more personal than one existing only in the cloud. The arrival of Christmas cards is one reason why I love the post office. But only one.
Defending the maligned United States Postal Service is a Sisyphean endeavor, but that's what opinion columns are for: I submit that the USPS represents the best of America. My career as a freelance writer, having begun in the last century, owes much to the U.S. mail. I used to mail out fat envelopes of essays and stories, and then check each day for the return of the self-addressed envelope, which brought tidings of either rejection or acceptance, mostly the former. In those days, getting the mail was an exercise in hope, a belief in possibility. Although the bulk of the business of writing is conducted online now, a pile of envelopes delivered daily to the mailbox still holds a place in my heart.
I recently came across a book pertinent to the post office, in the library where I work. We periodically recycle books that have not been checked out for a long time, or are in disrepair. This one fit both descriptions: "They Carried the Mail," by Mathew J. Bowyer, published in 1972, which was just after the federal agency of the U.S. post office became the semi-private corporation of the Postal Service. A postal worker himself, Mr. Bowyer's postology pinpoints the birth of the U.S. mail to the colony of Virginia in 1657. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania followed suit, and the first national post office for colonial America was established in 1692. The British appointed Benjamin Franklin, the postmaster in Philadelphia, as Deputy Postmaster General for the colonies in 1753.
The Revolutionary War made delivery of the mail a hazardous duty, but the resulting new U.S. Congress established the post office as a national, permanent institution in 1792. In 1825, Congress authorized the delivery of mail to private homes for a fee. By 1855, all postage had to be prepaid, thus giving rise to the postage stamp. The Pony Express, established in 1860, was the fastest way to move a letter, but it was a private service, and lasted less than two years. Soon thereafter, mail was transported by rail. The invention of the telegraph, and then the telephone, made the mail a less urgent means of communication. Advances in aviation, however, increased the speed of mail delivery. Worldwide airmail officially began in 1918.
ZIP codes, automation and the Internet have all changed the way that mail has been handled. But the motto endures: "Neither snow nor rain nor sleet nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." We count on the daily delivery of our mail.
According to Bowyer, a job at the post office used to be a prestigious position in society, just a notch below doctor or minister. Postal workers were considered people of high character: Abe Lincoln was the postmaster of New Salem, Ill. This was before the 1971 conversion, before the competition of delivery services like FedEx or UPS, before the Internet, and before the phrase "going postal" meant losing one's mind and shooting one's co-workers.
Today's postal service is at an unfair disadvantage, in that a 2006 law requires the USPS to pre-fund 100 percent of its future obligations to employees' health plans for 75 years into the future. This is an undue burden, as no other agency pre-funds at more than 30 percent. Before 2006, the post office was making a modest profit. With this hefty requirement, on paper the post office is now broke. The fallout from this law has prompted calls to end Saturday mail delivery, and to consolidate local post offices into regional centers. These steps could facilitate the death of the USPS.
Although we complain about the postal service, the mail has touched every American life in some way, from manuscripts to magazines, from bills to official business, from birthday greetings to condolences to Christmas cards. More importantly, the USPS symbolizes democracy. It embodies the American ideal that the playing field of life is level, and that everyone has an equal chance for success: A stamp can launch a career. A book of stamps can change the world.
For instance, the library where I work is a prison library, a place where the Internet does not enter, and where aspiring writers still rely on the old-fashioned mail to submit manuscripts or communicate with the outside world. For anyone unable to go online, for whatever reason, the USPS remains the great equalizer, a method of communication that, even at the proverbial snail's pace, gets the job done, the word out, the point across, the message sent. The USPS is a piece of America worth saving.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.