Every day, people check their mail. Anyone can send a letter to another state or another country, and people ship all kinds of things through the U.S. Postal Service. But how did this system come to be? How did people send letters before planes, highways, and trucks?
Before there was a post office, neighbors played an important part in sending and receiving mail. Some people would collect letters for a small fee and arrange for a ship's captain, carriage driver, etc., to take them along to their destination. Families would send someone to check for deliveries with every ship that came into the harbor because they never knew when a letter might arrive. Neighbors would gather packages and notes for people they knew and deliver them in person. When the United States of America was on the brink of becoming a nation, it founded its own postal service in 1775. It still looked very different from what we know today, but it was a big step toward faster, safer, and more reliable mail delivery.
When settlers pushed west along the Oregon Trail and fortune-hunters rushed to mining towns along the Pacific coast, reliable and speedy mail delivery became much trickier. There were large areas without towns or cities for mail to be processed in, and there were no roads between settlements. People still had things to say and send, though, and the postal service needed a solution to the gap between the East Coast and the West. That is why the Pony Express was born. Individual riders picked up big, locked saddlebags full of letters and rode across the country as quickly as they could. They looked a lot like the cowboys you see in movies, since they traveled with very few supplies and carried guns for protection. Riding alone across the country was a dangerous business: Outlaws and bandits often targeted Pony Express riders because people sometimes sent money and other valuables by mail. Robbing one man on a horse was easier than holding up a train or stagecoach. Eventually, better roads and the growing number of trains reduced the need for Pony Express riders, and they became part of history.
You've probably sent a letter by sticking a stamp on the corner of an envelope. Once upon a time, before there were stamps, clerks had to calculate the postage for each letter individually and write the cost on the envelope by hand. It wasn't the best system, and the invention of stamps created a much easier way to pay for postage. Stamps first appeared in America from a private shipping company. They used them to simplify and confirm the mailing process for customers and clerks so they could do more business. It was such a good idea that the postal service bought the entire company and their stamps. Today, stamps make it easy to send just about anything from home, and you don't even have to visit the post office to buy them.
You may be surprised by how many people you've heard of have worked for the post office. The job has drawn a lot of clever people, and while most moved on to other jobs that made them famous, they are still fondly remembered by the postal service. For instance, did you know that Walt Disney worked for the postal service before he hit it big making cartoons? He must have liked his job: Several of his early short films feature characters delivering and receiving mail. Founding fathers, writers, and even a president have worked for the postal service.
Since some version of the postal service has been around since even before America was founded, it has a lot of interesting history. Today, it's a huge organization that handles millions of letters, packages, magazines, postcards, and catalogs. A lot happens to get your letter to a friend in another state, and your neighborhood letter carrier only handles the final step of the journey.
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