20 February 1792: First US postal service begins

America's postal service, then known as the United States Postal Office, began making its rounds on this day in 1792.


The precursor to the inbox in late 19th century America

In 1691, Thomas Neale was given a21-year concession to develop a national postal service for colonial America, named the North American Postal Service. He established a few offices, but the organisation was taken over by the British government when his monopoly expired, and the focus was then put on international mail.

To remedy this, the Continental Congress (which met to discuss grievances with the Crown) passed a decree in 1775 creating the United States Postal Office. However, the disruption of the War of Independence meant that it was 1792 before a law was passed to fund the network fully.

The new service was overseen by the postmaster general, a post that was a popular target for political patronage up until civil service reform in 1869. Despite this, the Postal Office was relatively efficient.

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The use of railways from the late 1830s, and the introduction of stamps from 1847 helped cut delivery times, even during the period of territorial expansion and rapid population growth. While users initially had to collect their mail from boxes in postal offices, direct city delivery began in 1863, and was extended to rural areas in 1896.

The network was renamed the United States Postal Service (USPS) in 1971. The amount of mail handled peaked in 2001, as the growth of email began to cut into letter deliveries. Competition from private delivery services such as FedEx and UPS has further damaged revenue and USPS lost $5.5bn in 2014.

In an attempt to reduce losses, it has closed a large number of offices and restricted overnight deliveries, but still employs 627,000 staff.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

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