`Immediate delivery'

THIS year marks the centennial of special delivery by the postal system, an event whose early history might assist contemporary mail authorities in meeting the competition of private carriers. The ``immediate delivery'' process -- the name used in 1885 -- got off on the right foot because it combined two prudent goals: fast service and reasonable cost; it relied on boys as messengers. The first stamp signifying the service featured a messenger boy on the run. The incentive for the youngsters to do a good job was that they would get 80 percent of the value of the special service (8 cents a letter, since the fee was 10 cents, in addition to the 2-cent first-class rate). Because the boys were not employees, there was no expense to the post office for delivery equipment -- the boys used their feet, bicycles, or public transportation -- and civil service regulations did not apply.

The post offices also decided to send out special-delivery mail with the regular carrier if such mail arrived before he left for his assigned route. This meant that young messengers would work mostly in the afternoon and evening and at set times that coincided with the actual arrival of such mail in the post offices.

In the first year of service, a million special-delivery letters were delivered; by 1917 there were 25 million. What is more, the rate in 1917 was the same as in 1885 (10 cents), and the messengers remained young boys (teen-agers were preferred) who continued to earn 8 cents a letter.

No one expects a youngster to work at such rates today. But there is no sound reason why the special-delivery function of the US Postal Service should founder when a modified version of the old system could be set up. Current rates could be reduced, and peripatetic teen-agers would be engaged in helpful employment. In our specialized world, special delivery fulfills a function that falls between Postal Express and regular mail. As for the USPS, it should be able to undercut some private competitors as well as make money letting a kid do a well-paid adult's job.

There's little choice if special-delivery is to avoid consignment to the Smithsonian Institution. At its present rate of $2.95, it's nothing to write home about.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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