Can you believe it’s been 238 years since the establishment of the United States postal system? Yep, that’s right. The postal system (as it was originally called) was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775.
There were no post offices in early colonial times, so mail was typically left at inns and taverns. Nearly all mail was from overseas as the colonists had no need to send correspondence “locally”. Mail deliveries from across the Atlantic were sporadic and could take months to arrive.
Today the United States Postal Service® delivers more mail to more addresses in a larger geographical area than any other post in the world. They deliver to nearly 151 million homes, businesses and Post Office Boxes in every state, city, town and borough in this country. Everyone living in the U.S. and its territories has access to postal products and services and pays the same postage regardless of location.
Before the internet, before email, texting and video chatting, there was the Postal Service. Take a look at photos from the Smithsonian Institute’s archives and watch how our mail system has changed as transportation and technology has changed our world.
1. The “Chesapeake” (1887)
The “Chesapeake,” a USPS steamboat.
2. Owney the stray (1895)
Owney was a stray that walked into a post office in upstate New York where he fell asleep on a pile of mailbags. Presumably he became attracted to the scent of the mail because he began following them on mail wagons and then trains.
3. Mail-sorting vehicle (1907)
Only two of these mail-sorting vehicles were in service in Wisconsin. They carried mail sorters around as they sorted mail between offices.
4. Horse-drawn delivery (1909)
Posing for a picture on a horse-drawn delivery carriage, a carrier shows off his modified seat with a sling to carry the day’s mail.
5. Through rain, sleet and snow (1910)
Using a horse-drawn sleigh, a female mail carrier makes her morning rounds in deep snow.
6. USPS savings accounts (1914)
Ending in 1966, the USPS offered savings accounts to customers looking to hold money in a federal institution with the convenience of the location of a post office.
7. War-time censorship (1918)
During the first World War, the U.S. military began large-scale mail censoring to remove information that could aid the enemy.
8. Airmail is introduced (1918)
The first USPS plane takes off in Washington, D.C. to begin the service’s airmail.
9. Mail sorting (1920)
A post office mail-sorter puts mail into pigeon holes for Hazelton, NJ, Bellefonte, PA, Cleveland, OH, Bryan, OH, Iowa City, IA, Omaha, NB, North Platte, NB Cheyenne, WY, Rock Springs, WY, Salt Lake City, UT, and Elko, NV.
10. Rural mail carriers (1925)
Unlike city carriers, urban mail letter carriers had to provide their own transportation such as the Ford pictured. Though they weren’t required to wear a uniform, the unidentified carrier in this picture purchased and wore one on his routes.
11. Modified Ford Model-T (1926)
A modified Ford Model-T fitted for carrier service in inclement winter weather.
12. James A. Farley Post Office (1936)
At the James A. Farley Post Office Building in New York City, mail carriers head out on their morning rounds.
13. Making the rounds (1947)
Postal workers would collect mail from tree-mounted boxes.
14. “Mailsters” on parade (1954)
To introduce their latest three-wheeled carrier vehicles and celebrate the holidays, postal workers organized an appearance in a parade in Maryland.
15. The “Mailster” (1955)
A city “mailster,” a three-wheeled motor vehicle that was introduced following the second World War to help transport the ever-growing amount of mail.
City letter carrier seated in a three-wheeled “mailster” motor vehicle. Carriers used these vehicles to carry the ever-increasing amounts of mail that was being delivered to American households after end of the Second World War.