When Sunday mail delivery was just fine…

The U.S. Postal Service has fallen on hard times–as predicted by anyone who realizes that government ‘privatization’ usually means the privatized services soon simply don’t work. Today’s post office is not a government agency; it’s supposedly a private sort of non-governmental agency that nonetheless needs the blessings of Congress to operate. That, right there, is a recipe for disaster, given our dysfunctional national legislature these days. But with the post office department, it has led to Congress requiring the agency to fund pensions of people who don’t even work for it yet, along with a bunch of other nonsense the post office has been burdened with for reasons best known to the folks in Washington.

The upshot is the postal service’s plan to stop Saturday mail deliveries in an effort, no matter how lame, to save money. When the plan goes into effect this coming August, it will be the second day removed from the mail delivery calendar. The post office, you see, used to deliver the mail on Sundays.

From the time the post office was established after the Revolutionary War, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, including those living in the small frontier towns like the ones that were springing up along the post roads in northern Illinois.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

When the coaches neared a post office, the drivers blew their long tin horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for everyone to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried. On most days, this rush to the post office—which was often located in a community’s general store, inn, or tavern—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. Problems arose, however, if the coach arrived on a Sunday. Then, ministers quickly saw the male halves of their congregations melt away as they rushed down to the post office to hear the latest news.

The discontent caused by the disruptions created by the arrival of the mails on Sundays resulted in the Sabbatarian movement.

In April 1810, Congress decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.

The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the members of that opposition became known as Sabbatarians. Not only did they want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. That threatened to have an impact on the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons. So, not surprisingly, the stagecoach companies were some of the most active in opposing the Sabbatarian movement.

Nonetheless, the Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next twenty years, with petition after petition, many created at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly, being dispatched to the post office department in Washington, D.C. demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.

But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement (one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish) had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own competing petition drives, helped even by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that felt Saturday was the true Sabbath. Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.

Not until 1841 were Sabbatarians able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants found electronic communication faster than the mails. It wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the campaign started—that the post office agreed to halt mail delivery and close all offices on Sunday.

Nowadays, the postal service is again planning to take a day out of their service week, but not for religious reasons. Unless you happen to think that modern determinations to destroy government agencies, one at a time, has something close to a religious intent behind it.

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Filed under Frustration, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

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