THIS month marks the 210th anniversary of the American postal system. That may not sound like big news today, with postal workers so frequently seen crisscrossing the streets and neighborhoods of every town in the land. Yet, anniversaries are a time for looking back -- for measuring the progress and highlighting the key figures from earliest times. No individual was more important to the early American postal system than Benjamin Franklin, who served as a Philadelphia postmaster, deputy postmaster general for the colonies, and finally as head of the revolutionary effort. Franklin's secret for success was simple: He reduced postal rates; he visited Colonial post offices (traveling some 1,600 miles in one year) for the purpose of eliminating wasteful practices and instilling zeal in employees; he made certain that mail rates were in proportion to the distance between pickup and delivery; and he resisted the attempts of Colonial governors to use the mails without cost.
A formula like that today could probably get someone elected to public office for life!
Most of all, Franklin worked on speeding up -- yes, that's right, speeding up -- mail delivery. When he assumed the deputy postmastership in 1754, for example, the mail between Philadelphia and New York moved just once a week. Within a year Franklin had the mails move three times a week between the two cities. He even studied the specific roads and ferries to be used.
Franklin would also carve his place in postal history by being the first postmaster to announce in which time period letters would be delivered. ``I will now only just mention,'' he wrote to a colleague, ``that we hope in the spring to expedite the communication between Boston and New York, as we have already that between New York and Philadelphia, by making the mails travel by night as well as by day, which has never heretofore been done in America.
``It passes now between Philadelphia and New York so quick that a letter can be sent from one place to another, and an answer received the day following, which before took a week, and when our plan is executed between Boston and New York, letters may be sent and answers received in four days, which before took a fortnight; and between Philadelphia and Boston in six days, which before required three weeks.''
Not bad, considering the year was 1764. We don't seem to do as well more than two centuries later!
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.