Technology has always revolutionized moving the mail

Feb 24, 2014, 8 AM

It is awesome how technology has changed the way we communicate with one another.

You might think that statement refers to e-mail, texting and Internet video conferencing. Those are indeed current technologies that have changed the way we communicate, but looking at communication technologies of bygone days proves that communication between people is not a static process.

Couriers carried ancient messages by hand. Horses, camels, oxen, donkeys, mules and other animals with riders have delivered mail and messages.

As commerce expanded, postal services, whether government sponsored or commercially operated, sprang up, and that expansion, in turn, drove the need for better and faster mail delivery. 

Those "better and faster" qualities were embraced as postal services looked for ways to improve.

In the United States, post roads were constructed to help speed mail carriers through the wilderness.

Next came stagecoaches that could carry mail and parcels. Newer technologies brought pneumatic tubes, steamboats, trains, hot-air balloons, bicycles, cars, buses, motorcycles, airplanes, dirigibles, rockets and dozens of other methods used to speed the mail. 

The delivery of postal mail continues to evolve.

Forming a collection that illustrates the various ways mail has traversed from point A to point B could be an engrossing project. It need not be expensive. 

Stamps frequently show exotic forms of mail delivery. Figure 1 pictures one of the most well-known stamps that illustrates mail being delivered. Issued by Sudan in 1898, the 1-millieme rose and brown stamp (Scott 9) depicts the Sudanese camel post that brought regimental mail to British soldiers stationed in Sudan.

Another famous and equally exotic mail delivery system is shown in Figure 2: the legendary tin can mail of Niuafo'ou, an island in the Tonga chain (Tonga—Niuafo'ou Scott 77). This 57-seniti stamp shows the transfer of mail from a passenger liner to an outrigger canoe. The canoe would paddle back to the island with the mail in sealed tin cans that safely protected it from ocean spray.

While it is fun to collect stamps that commemorate different methods of mail delivery, collecting examples of mail that actually traveled a route using new or unusual processes can be even more captivating.

Figure 3 shows a stamp­less letter mailed in 1844 from Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York. Notice the “Steam” handstamp near the 10¢ manuscript postal fee at upper right.

Steamboats began plying the Ohio River beginning as early as 1811. By the time this letter was mailed, hundreds of steamboats traveled the major rivers in eastern and central United States, and many of the vessels had contracts with the U.S. Post Office Department to carry mail. 

Trains carried enormous quantities of mail. In the United States, nearly all major railroads had railway mail cars. These were staffed by postal railway clerks who would postmark and sort the mail while the train was moving, thus speeding the mail to its final destination.

Figure 4 shows a letter that was mailed on an R.P.O. (railway post office) in 1897.

Figure 5 pictures an airmail cover sent on a special flight Aug. 27, 1926, from the state fair grounds in Springfield, Ill. The envelope is addressed to Portland, Ore.

The first official regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States began May 15, 1918. The Post Office Department later contracted routes with commercial airlines, and airmail became the fastest way to move the mail.

As air travel became more prominent, train service diminished. To take up the slack, in 1941 the Post Office Department outfitted buses in a manner similar to the railway post offices so that mail could be postmarked and sorted en route.

This service, known as the highway post office or H.P.O., ended in 1974. By then, most mail was airborne.

Figure 6 shows a 1952 first-trip cover from the Cincinnati-Indianapolis highway post office.

Forming a one-of-each collection of the various ways used by postal administrations to move mail is a fun way to learn how technology has always been a key player in postal communication.