The Early Postal System


Although the Constitution gave the Congress the power to "Establish Post Office and Post Roads," it was not until the Postal Act of 1792 was affirmed in 1794 that it finally created the American postal service. That act provided for the postmaster general, set rates, and regulated the postal system.

It also launched three guiding principles that shaped the United States postal service: that it be self supporting, return any profit to the Treasury, and that Congress, not the postmaster general, was to establish the post roads. The latter provision opened the postal service even more to the vagaries of the political process and caused it to attune its collective ear to the voice of the people. Thus, through petition and intercourse with their elected officials, the ever moving American people prodded the post office to establish new routes and offices throughout the growing nation.

The prodding worked. In 1792 less than 6,000 miles comprised the mail routes. Scattered along the post roads, which mainly stretched from Maine to Georgia, were 195 post offices or stations. The numbers jumped to 21,000 miles and 903 offices by 1800 and over 100,00 miles and 6,500 offices by 1830. 1836 saw a continuing frenzy of expansion. 28,000 miles were added during that year and carriers totaled nearly twenty six million miles encumbered by the mails.

In the beginning the system was primitive. The mail was often carried from post to post in large portmanteaus. At each destination the postmaster would pull out the mail meant for his post and send the portmanteau blithely on its way. Later distribution offices, which sorted and processed the mails, were opened. Mail was often mangled beyond legibility or lost. Deliveries were often delayed due to poor roads, less than ideal conditions, or poor performance by contractors and carriers.

1836 was a pivotal year for the postal service. On July 1 of that year the provisions of the Postal Act of 1836 went into effect. The new law was the result of yet another of Congress' periodic investigations of the postal service. Like the others it was in response to complaints of poor service and cost overruns. As noted, the postal service was supposed to be self supporting, returning any surplus to the treasury. As with other aspects of life, this was easier legislated than accomplished.

The postal service was often able to turn a profit over the years, but it also suffered the inevitable lean years. Sometimes, as after the Panic of 1819, it was partially due to the exigencies of the economic situation. At others, it was due to poor management and too rapid expansion. The constant call for increased services often led to the assumption of unprofitable routes and increasing costs. A major investigation in 1821 blamed the above for fostering shortfalls. That investigation came during the administration (1814-1823) of Postmaster General Return Meigs, who had done much to improve the Post Office.

Meigs was succeeded by John McLean, who was able to return the post office to the profit column by keeping a close eye on operations and contractors and more judiciously increasing routes. Also. instead of returning the surplus to the treasury, he used it to finance new routes and services. By 1826 not even his skills could keep up with a Congress that added still more routes in response to constituents' pleas. The deficits returned. McLean, in part due to the acclaim surrounding his handling of the postal service, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1829 before his reputation was tarnished.

It was his successor, William Barry, who was to suffer. Barry had the misfortune of presiding over the Post Office during more lean years. The surpluses that had accumulated under McLean had run out. Continued route expansions and Barry's poor management led to deficits which once again sparked investigations and outcry. Despite everything, Barry did begin to make improvements in the system toward the end of his reign. However, his reputation and his policy of replacing long time employees with Jacksonian Democrats led to his ouster in 1835.

Amos Kendall, a power in Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet, took over from Barry. Kendall, benefiting from Barry's improvements and rising revenues, saw the surplus return in 1835. So much so that, in his 1836 annual report, he called for a postage reduction.

It was also during Kendall's tenure that Congress passed the aforementioned Postal Act of 1836. The bill reorganized the postal service and sought to correct administrative deficiencies. Many of its 46 sections dealt with the awarding of contracts and other fiscal matters. It also rejected the call by Jackson and others that the mails be censored of "inflammatory materials." This clamor was spurred by the sending of anti-slavery tracts via the mails, especially in the South. However, this section was often ignored and angry citizens were known to storm post offices, seizing and burning abolitionist materials.

Additionally, the bill altered the method of handling the service's finances. Henceforward, yearly budgets were formulated and submitted to Congress. All postal revenues, not just surpluses, were turned over to the Treasury Department. Thus, 1836 was quite literally the year the the postal service closed out the old books and began anew.


The appointment of postmasters was one of the "spoils" of Presidential politics in the early 1800s; whoever won the Presidency got to fill postmasterships with his political appointees. Since few of these persons were known to the President and the Postmaster General, recommendations were frequently accepted from interested Senators and Congressmen. Experience helped, good judgment and honesty were valued, but the main requirement for a postmastership was party loyalty. Through the 1830s, virtually all new postmasters were Jacksonian Democrats.

A postmastership was certainly a job worth having. Under an 1825 law, postmasters received no salary, but were entitled to a share of their postal revenues at a scale ranging from 30 percent for the first $100 worth of postal business they did each quarter to 8 percent of all above $2400 until the commission reached its maximum of $2000. Very few postmasters came close to that maximum (twice the 1836 salary of the Governor of Indiana) and most kept another business -- frequently a store in addition to their postal position.

The work of the postmaster was challenging but not overtaxing. Early Postal SystemHe was usually referred to as postmaster of a town, although his "jurisdiction' extended to the suburbs and into the country, until it met the territory of the next town's postmaster. People from all over the town and surrounding area brought their letters to the postmaster, who listed them in his ledger, making special note if postage was paid in advance. As people came in to pick up their mail, he collected the postage on each letter and noted the charges in his book. When letters were received, he sent notices to the newspaper so the names of the recipients could be advertised.

The postmaster sorted the letters from his town for delivery. Letters for each post office along the local post road were bundled and set aside to be sent when the stage or rider for that route stopped by. Indiana mail addressed to more distant towns was sent to Indianapolis, or Cincinnati, to be forwarded to its destination.

Postmasters, as a rule, did not deliver mail to individuals; people picked their letters up at the post office. There were a few exceptions: a postmaster in Lebanon reportedly carried the mail in his hat, and delivered letters as he chanced to meet their recipients. Most postmasters, however, were more content to let the people come to them for their mail.

The post office itself was a government office established to receive and deliver mail. In most towns it shared quarters with the postmaster's other business, often taking a corner of the store or business office. Indianapolis and some larger towns had separate post office buildings by the mid-1830s. These were the designated points for pickup and delivery of the mail from the stages or riders contracted to make these deliveries. A post stop was a less-official institution. This was frequently a spot on a post route between post offices where mail from the surrounding area was gathered to be handed to the post rider or stage driver area was gathered to be handed to the post rider or stage driver for delivery to the next post office. Little information is available on these stops, so it is uncertain if any mail was actually left for the nearby residents, or if they had to go to the nearest post office.

Postal Routes & Roads

During the early 1800s, postal service routes or post roads were designated by acts of Congress. Any citizen or town could petition the Postmaster General for a post road. Generally, almost every town wanted a post road and mail delivery at a post stop; a town with a post stop wanted a post office. A post road offered mail delivery and communication with the "outside world", and competition was keen for routes. Once voted on by Congress, a route would be laid out and contracts offered for mail service along the route.

Post roads were laid out beginning at one post office and ending at another, frequently passing by other post offices and post stops along the route. Deliveries were made from the initial post office to the other offices along the route -- and frequently at other stops, not officially post offices -- and the final post office. The mail was picked up at this last post office and the route and deliveries were reversed back to the initial post office. These post roads could be of any length, from five or six miles to upwards of two hundred miles.

Once a route was selected, bids were solicited for the contract to carry mail over that route. Both stage companies and individuals were welcome to bid for these contracts, the lowest bidder receiving the yearly commission. It should be noted that these were not officially postal employees like postmasters; they were hired solely to transport the mail from one point to another on a set schedule. They were paid a set fee for this service and did not keep books or collect postage.

Indiana in the 1830s had some fairly typical routes. Route No. 3031 ran from Richmond to Peru, the contract being let to L.R. Brownell for an annual consideration of $340. The route included Greenfork, Economy, Palmyra, Blountsville, Muncytown, Cranberry, Greenberry and Marion, a distance of one hundred seven and one-half miles. Over routes from Indianapolis to Madison and from Indianapolis to Cincinnati three weekly trips were made in four-horse post-coaches. James H. Wallace & Co. received $1893 yearly compensation for carrying the mails over the Madison route which included Greenwood, Franklin, Edinburg, Woodruff (supplied alternately), Columbus, Scipio, Vernon, Lancaster and Wirt. James Jones & Co. covered the one hundred thirteen miles three times each week for a compensation of $2000 per annum on the Cincinnati route. The revenue from passengers and packages on these stage routes no doubt supplemented the receipts from the transportation of the mails.

There were many short routes on which contracts were let. John Boner of Vernon received $25 per annum for service on a six-mile route, from Milton in Wayne County to Jacksonburgh in the same county. Wesley Goodwin received $50 per annum for his weekly trips from New Castle to Milton. There must have been more spirited bidding on some routes than others. Route No. 3032, eighty-three miles from Indianapolis to Lafayette netted the contractor only $398 per annum. This route ran by way of Piketon, Rodman's, Lebanon, Thorntown, Frankfort, Jefferson, Prairieville, Huntersville, and Dayton. J.O. and G.M. Orchards, owners of the "Temperance Inn" at Bloomington, were the contractors of the Louisville-Indianapolis route.

Many contractors operated a number of these routes. John Boner of Vernon was the successful bidder on six different routes. Since it would have been difficult for one man to deliver on six routes going in six directions, it seems likely that he sublet some of the routes to others. This was probably a common practice, particularly on the shorter and less-profitable routes.

Post roads were generally designated along the major roads of the state. By the mid-1830s, all of the State Roads were also designated as post roads, and many of the smaller roads used by the stage lines were also so designated. Much of the mail carried over these routes was carried by the stage lines. In some cases, the stages even arrived before the roads; Chicago and Green Bay had stage and mail service by 1836, before any real roads were built to either city.

Mail carried by stage was transported in leather chests or containers which were unlocked by postal officials at each stop. Mail for that stop was removed, and mail received by that office added to the chest. The container was then relocked and the stage sent on to its next post office.

Along the smaller post routes, delivery was often made by a single carrier on horseback, sometimes on foot. Mail was carried in his saddlebags and delivered to the postmaster at each stop. On the whole, most of the mail coming into Indiana probably came in by stage, but once distributed, more was carried by these single carriers within the state.


Letters looked physically different than today. Envelopes were not used. Generally, the ends of the letter were folded in toward each other, then the bottom folded up and the top folded down over it.

Early Letter

1848 William Conner letter

The top was then sealed to the bottom by a wafer, a small disc which was moistened and stuck between the top and bottom of the letter (black wafers were sometimes used on letters announcing a death). If the person opening the letter were not careful, part of the letter could be torn off when the letter was opened by breaking the wafer.

The prepared "envelope" was then addressed and taken to the post office. The postmaster determined the charge for postage and noted this on the corner of the letter. He usually noted the name of his post office (usually the town name) and the date mailed. This was sometimes done in manuscript, but often a wooden or metal stamp, similar to our modern ring dater, was used. The letter was then added to the next mail going in the direction of its address.

Other special markings were sometimes added to these letters. If the postage was paid in advance, the word "PAID" was noted next to the postage indicator. If the letter was to be carried on a ship (from towns on waterways), the name of the ship was frequently also noted on the envelope.

It should be especially noted that postage stamps were not used in the 1830s. The idea of stamps originated with Rowland Hill in England in 1840, and the U.S. didn't issue its own stamps until 1847. By then, postal rates had been standardized at 5 cents under 300 miles, 10 cents over 300 miles, for a one-sheet letter.

1836 Postage Rates (single sheet)
0-30 miles 6 cents
30-80 miles 10 cents
80-150 miles 12 1/2 cents
150-400 miles 18 1/2 cents
400+ miles 25 cents

1848 William Conner letter showing paper folds, hand-written postage, stamped post office name, and remains of sealing wafer.