On Nov. 1 the price of a first-class postage stamp will rise to 20 cents, the 10th increase since 1932. Coincidentally, the increase comes at about the same time as the 10th anniversary of the United States Postal Service, the nonprofit corporation that replaced the cabinet-level department on July 1, 1971. Both events present the opportunity to examine the history of the mails, as well as to reflect on the future.
First, the issue of cost. For much of the nation's history, the mail was not cheap. The colonial post was downright prohibitive in terms of regular usage. In time, the newspaper, which especially served the needs of colonial merchants, would find inexpensive access through the mails because printers and postmasters were often one and the same person.
In the early 19th century, mailing costs were determined by distance: A letter moving 30 miles would cost six cents, one in excess of 400 miles 25 cents. The goal of postal authorities was to reduce costs, with significant decreases occurring in 1851 and lasting for nearly a century, until the first-class stamp rose from 2 cents to 3 cents on 1932.
For the next quarter-century, mailing costs remained stable. To be sure, there were rate increases, but they were modest: to 4 cents in 1958, 5 cents in 1963, and 6 cents in 1968. The seven increases occurring in the last decade were not burdensome when compared with the cost of the mails in other nations. Next to Canada with its 17-cent stamp, the United States is the leader in low rates charged to users.
Cost was subservient to service throughout the formative period of postal history. In the long era from 1851 to 1968 the post office balanced its budget 13 times. During the same period came the money order, rural free delivery, and an extensive parcel post system that well-served business firms that depended so much on the mails. By the 1920s Americans were pleased, with a leading congressman boasting that "there will be no change in the service-first policy of the United States Post Office."
However, the weight of the Great Depression led Congress to worry about postal deficits. Retrenchment policies were pursued, and the actual number of materials sent through the mails declined between 1932 and 1940. Then came the boom times of post-World War II America, although authorities were still concerned about a balanced budget. With this mind-set, the system was unprepared to deal with the three-fold increase in the mails from 1945 to 1970. And Congress, witnessing the concomitant decline of the postal and rail service (the mail routes of railroads declined to one-fourth their size by 1970), turned both responsibilities over to private corporations.
The symbol of the U.S. Postal Service gave a clue to the direction of the future. In place of the 133-year-old emblem of a bedraggled man on horseback came a blue eagle that looked in A-1 fiscal shape. The USPS was to be a business--at least in 15 years when the federal subsidy, decreasing annually, would be no more. At the same time, the service was expected to move the mails, provide employes with a better shake, and to modernize equipment.
From this perspective, USPS was between a rock and hard spot. The mails continued to increase mightily, topping 100 billion pieces by 1980. Competition in the movement of packages came from several sources; postal employes demanded raises; modernization cost money; and red ink was a no-no. In the last five years the service turned a profit only once, but the deficits ranging from $306 million to over $1 billion annually were not outlandish in relation to the total budget.
Like the budget issue, the record of the USPS with respect to service has been mixed. Mailgrams would blossom in the 1970s, outdistancing telegram volume. At the same time, postage-due letters went the way of the wind, a decision that was not without disadvantages in terms of delays or pile-ups at the Dead Letter Office. There were, however, savings to business firms. Then there was the matter of promoting expectations that could not always be met, as for example the pronouncement in 1973 stipulating one-night delivery on airmail between major cities and 48-hour service within the continental United States.
The final verdict has yet to be reached on recent postal developments. There does not appear to be a crisis situation, especially in view of the fact that the habits of Americans have changed over the years. Household-to-household mail had actually declined as other forms of intra- and inter-city communication have been devised. Nineteen eighty-four, when the federal subsidy comes to an end, may well be the next milestone in postal service history.