Please, Mr. Postman,
Look and see,
If there’s a letter in your bag for me…
— The Mavelettes
In 1961, when the Marvelettes had a Billboard number one hit with their debut single “Please Mr. Postman,” all they were hoping for was a letter from their sweetheart, away at war. A reasonable request. But have you ever stopped to think about all the other things mailmen have been asked to deliver through the years?
The United States Post Office (USPO) was originally created in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress, with Benjamin Franklin named as the first Postmaster General. By 1792 the Post Office Department, as it was then called, expanded the existing service and guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence, which was a large portion of what was delivered.
But the advent of rural free delivery in 1896 and parcel post service in 1913 changed that. The development of a more efficient transportation system and deliver to more remote areas of the country saw an increase in mail order companies – think Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck and Co. or J.C. Penney.
Among the more popular items sold through their catalogs were clothes, toys, household goods, and appliances. But did you know that you could even buy a house? Both Montgomery Ward and Sears sold kit houses through the mail, many of which are still lived in today. How would you have liked to be the postman delivering that?
In March of 1849, a slave by the name of Henry Brown, with some help from a sympathetic white shopkeeper and a freed black man, mailed himself to abolitionists in Philadelphia. It was a 27-hour journey by wagon, railroad and steamboat, and through it all Henry remained folded inside a wooden crate 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide
Luckily for Charlotte May Pierstorff, her trip wasn’t quite so difficult. On February 19, 1914, Charlotte May’s father mailed the five-year-old from Grangeville to Lewiston, Idaho, a train trip of only a few hours, all of it spent in the company of her mother’s cousin who happened to be the postal clerk. With postage stamps attached to her jacked she was put on the mail car in the morning and delivered to her grandmother in time for lunch. Talk about special delivery!
For more on the history of the parcel post service, check out the National Postal Museum or Nancy Pope’s article celebrating 100 years of the service. For ideas of what you can send through the mail system (people are no longer allowed), take a look at Laura Grace Weldon’s suggestions of what to do with “snail mail.”
And let’s not forget to give a big thank you to all of the men and women out there, delivering our letters and packages, whatever they may be. As the inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”