The New International Encyclopædia/Post-Office

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POST-OFFICE. A public institution for the reception and delivery of letters, newspapers, books, and such other matter as may by law of the State be intrusted to the mails for conveyance. The post-office is frequently also charged with other duties than the handling of mail. Thus in the United States it issues money orders designed to facilitate the transmission of money, and in European countries it conducts savings institutions and has a monopoly of the facilities for telegraphic communication. The postal service is at present in all civilized countries under the management and control of the Government. The name originated in the posts (from Lat. positum, placed, fixed) placed at intervals along the roads of the Roman Empire where couriers were kept in readiness to bear dispatches and intelligence. The first letter-post seems to have been established in the Hansa towns in the early part of the thirteenth century as a means of facilitating commercial intercourse. In England a system of posts for dispatching letters was early provided. Sir Brian Tuke being mentioned as the first Master of the Posts in the reign of Henry VIII. In the reign of Elizabeth a chief postmastership was established. Thomas Randolph being the first incumbent. With the accession of James I. to the throne of England and the consequent increased intercourse between England and Scotland a marked improvement in the postal system followed. In the reign of Charles I. a monopoly of letter-carrying was established, the rates of postage being fixed at from 2d. to 6d. for a single letter, according to distance, in England, 8d. to Scotland, and 9d. to Ireland. In 1680 a penny post was established for the conveyance of letters and parcels between different parts of London and its suburbs. In the reign of Anne the existing postal statutes were repealed and the post-office establishment placed on a new basis. A general post-office was instituted at London for the British dominions, with chief offices at Edinburgh, Dublin, New York, and other places in America, while the whole system was placed under the control of a postmaster-general with power to appoint deputies for the chief offices. Near the end of the eighteenth century coaches were substituted for riders on horseback. With the development of the railway system came the carriage of letters by train instead of by mail-coaches; and one novelty which arose out of this change was the adoption of traveling post-offices, forming part of the mail-train, where letters are arranged during transit, and which sometimes receive and drop the letter-bags while the train is going at full speed.

In 1812 the rates of postage on letters were fixed at 4d. for 15 miles, with a regular increase up to 17d., which was the charge for any distance over 700 miles. In 1837 a plan of post-office reform was suggested by Mr. (afterwards Sir) Rowland Hill, the adoption of which not only immensely increased the utility of the post-office, but changed its whole administration. Its principal features were the adoption of a uniform and low rate of postage, a charge by weight, and prepayment. The new system came into full operation in 1840. A penny was adopted as the uniform rate for every inland letter not above half an ounce in weight. Facilities for prepayment were afforded by the introduction of postage stamps, and double postage was levied on letters not prepaid. Arrangements were made for the registration of letters; and the money-order office, by a reduction of the commission charged for orders, became available to an extent which it had never been before. The immediate result of these changes was an enormous increase in the amount of correspondence, arising in part from the cessation of the illicit traffic in letters, which had so largely prevailed before; but for some years there was a deficit in the post-office revenue. Since 1897 the rates have been as follows when prepaid: Not exceeding 4 ounces, 1d.; over 4 ounces and not exceeding 6 ounces, 1½d.; over 6 ounces and not exceeding 8 ounces, 2d., and so on at the rate of one halfpenny for every additional two ounces. A letter posted unpaid is charged double postage. Letters insufficiently stamped are charged double the deficiency on delivery. Redirected letters are charged additional postage at the prepaid rate; and this may either be prepaid or charged on delivery. Letters for officers, soldiers, or seamen on actual service abroad are redirected without charge. The same privilege extends—with several restrictions—to such letters redirected at home. By paying ½d. extra, letters may be posted in the boxes attached to mail trains, in which sorting is performed.

The home and foreign mail-packet service was, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the hands of the post-office authorities, but was removed to the Board of Admiralty, under whose control it remained till 1860, when it was again restored to the post-office. Steam-vessels were first used for conveying the mail in 1821; and in 1833 mail contracts were introduced, the first being with the Mona Steam Company to run steamers from Liverpool to Douglas in the Isle of Man. Of the home mail-packet contracts, the most important are those with the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company for conveying the Irish mails between Holyhead and Kingstown. The principal foreign contracts are for the Indian and Chinese mails, entered into with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the mails to North and South America, the West Indies, the Australian colonies, and the Cape.

In 1901 there were 22,189 post-offices in the United Kingdom besides 33,590 road and pillar letter-boxes. The total number of letters delivered during the year was 2,323,600,000, as against 1,097,000,000 in 1879. The total number of post cards, books, newspapers, and parcels delivered through the mails amounted to 1,400,200,000. The number of money orders issued was 13,263,567, with an aggergate value of £39,374,665. The number of ‘postal orders’ issued amounted to 85,390,029, with an aggregate value of £29,881,726. The total receipts of the post-office exclusive of the income from the telegraphic service was £13,995,470, while the expenditures were £9,064,903, leaving a balance of £3,930,567.

The postal service of the United Kingdom is now under the immediate control of the Postmaster-General assisted by the chief secretary of the post-office in London, a financial secretary, and four other secretaries. There are also chief officers in Edinburgh and Dublin, with secretarial and other departmental staffs. The Postmaster-General is a member of the Privy Council, and sometimes a Cabinet Minister. He is the only officer connected with the department who leaves office on a change of Ministry. The secretary is his responsible adviser. The receiver and accountant-general keeps account of the money received by each department, receiving remittances from branch and provincial offices, and taking charge of the payment of all salaries, pensions, and items of current expenditure. The surveyors are the connecting link between the metropolitan and provincial officers, each postmaster, with some exceptions, being under the superintendence of the surveyor of his district. In 1900 the staff of officers employed in the post-office, including those engaged in telegraph work, was over 167,000.

Postal Savings Banks. See under that heading.

Post-Office Insurance. The system of post-office insurance, first established by the English Government through the Government Annuities Act of 1864, like the system of postal savings banks, was primarily intended for the promotion of habits of thrift among the working people. For many years the Government had sold terminable annuities for one life, two lives, or a term of years, through the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt. The act of 1864, which went into effect April 17, 1865, provided for the sale of such annuities of any amount between £4 and £50 through the Post-Office Department. It further authorized the Postmaster-General to insure the lives of persons between the ages of 16 and 60 inclusive for any amount between £20 and £100. But little advantage was taken of the provisions of the act, only 6524 contracts for life insurance having been entered into up to 1882. In that year the act now in force was passed. By its terms annuities, either immediate or deferred, are issued to persons not less than 5 years of age for any amount between £1 and £100. Insurance, either life or endowment, may be taken out by any person between the ages of 14 and 65 inclusive. The amount of the insurance may vary from £5 to £100. Insurance for £5 may be taken out on the lives of children from 8 to 13 years of age. Insurance for £25 or less may be issued without a medical examination, provided the insured presents other satisfactory evidence of good health. Such policies provide, however, that, if the insured dies within two years of the issuance of the policy, the beneficiary shall not receive the full amount of his policy. Premiums may be paid in a lump sum in advance, or in installments. In 1896 new premium rates were established, somewhat lower than those before in force. The present rates are a little higher than those of the regular life insurance companies, but on the whole somewhat lower than those of industrial companies.

The connection between the insurance department and the savings banks is the most characteristic feature of the institution. Every policyholder must be a depositor in the postal savings bank. He must deposit the full amount of his first premium, opening an account if he has not one already. Later premiums the Postmaster-General transfers from the deposits of the insured so long as they hold out, without notice from the insured. The insured may make his deposits in the bank at any time, and in any amounts, subject only to the general regulations of the bank. In the same way payments to the insured, whether arising from annuities or from endowment insurance policies, are first credited to his account on the books of the bank. Furthermore, the deposits in the bank, and the withdrawals from it, may be made at any one of the 13,000 postal savings banks in the country.

In spite of the more liberal conditions established by the law of 1882, the amount of life insurance business transacted by the Government is very small. Since the new law went into effect the number of policies issued has averaged less than 800 a year. The failure of the scheme is probably to be attributed partly to the great popularity of the Friendly Societies, partly to the rigidity of the Government system and its limited number of policy forms, partly to the lack of active effort to push the business through paid canvassers or otherwise, and partly to the antipathy of the English working people to Governmental institutions of this character. The experiment has had one beneficial result, however, if, as seems to be the ease, fear of the competition of the Government office has been partly responsible for the efforts the Friendly Societies have been making in recent years to establish their business on a sound financial basis.

Telegraphs. An act of 1870 empowered the post-office to acquire the existing electric telegraphs; and the telegraphic communication of the country is now in the hands of the post-office. As a result of governmental control the rates charged have been greatly reduced and the number of messages sent greatly increased. Since 1885 the charges have been half a penny per word, with a minimum charge of sixpence for each telegram. Above 89 millions of telegraphic messages were sent in the year ending March 31, 1901, about ten times the number sent in 1870. The gross revenue was £3,459,353; working expenses, £3,812,569. By an act of 1898 the Post-Office Department was further authorized to assume control of the telephone service of the United Kingdom.

A fee of 2d.—in addition to the ordinary postage—prepaid in stamps, secures careful handling of any letter, newspaper, or book-packet, and renders its transmission more secure, by enabling it to be traced from its receipt to its delivery. Letters may be registered for a fee of twopence to any place in the British colonies, and for various rates of charge to different foreign countries. Letters containing coin, if not registered, are treated as if they were, and charged on delivery with a registration fee of eightpence; the same fee is charged on letters marked ‘Registered’ and posted in the usual way instead of being given to a post-office servant. For the fiscal year 1899-1900, 16,256,852 letters were registered in the United Kingdom. Recently a system of insurance against loss or damage to letters has been established. The registration fee of 2d. entitles the sender to compensation up to £5, a fee of 3d. £10, and so on up to £120. Still more recently a railway and express letter service has been established by which letters may be intrusted to the railroad companies for dispatch upon payment of an additional fee.

Newspaper, Book, and Parcels Post. Newspapers and books may be sent through the mails at the rate of one halfpenny for every 2 ounces or fraction of 2 ounces. Newspapers to come under the definition must be published at intervals not exceeding seven days and appear in unstitched sheets. Under book post are included manuscripts, maps, prints, and circulars. In 1900 the number of newspapers carried aggregated 167,800,000, and the number of book packets, circulars, etc., was 732,400,000. The parcels post was established in 1883. In 1897 the rates were made 3d. for parcels not exceeding 1 pound, and 1d. for each succeeding pound up to 10 pounds. During the fiscal year ending March 31, 1900, 75,448,000 parcels were carried for £1,580,508.

Free Delivery. Prior to the American Revolution no provision had been made for free delivery except in a few of the larger cities and towns. Since then the free delivery system has become universal throughout the Kingdom. Corresponding to the American special delivery is the express delivery service of the British post-office, by which letters are sent out by express messengers in advance of the postman. The total number of deliveries of this kind in 1899 was 720,381. Rural free delivery service has been extended to all parts of England and is almost completed in Scotland and Ireland.

Money Orders. As far back as 1792 a money-order office as a private venture had been established for the transmission of small sums of money to different parts of the Kingdom. By an act passed in 1838 this business was incorporated in the Post-Office Department, but the commission charged was so high that it was only employed to a very limited extent. Inland money orders may be obtained at any of the post-offices of the United Kingdom, on payment of the following commission: For orders not exceeding £3, 3d.; over £3 and not exceeding £10, 4d. Money orders may now be issued to the colonies, to most European countries, the United States, Egypt, etc., the commission being about three to four times the above rate. A money order in the United Kingdom becomes void if not presented for payment before the end of the twelfth calendar month after that in which it was issued. Orders drawn on France or Italy must be paid within three months. The lower rates for inland money orders entail a loss on each transaction. Provision was further made for the issue of ten classes of ‘postal notes’ for small fixed sums, under the Post-Office Bill of 1880.

The Universal Postal Union. In October, 1874, a conference of representatives from all the States of Europe, the United States, and Egypt was held at Berne, and resulted in the establishment of an international postal union with a central office at Berne, which meets every three years to consider questions affecting the postal relations of the States concerned. This was followed in June, 1878, by the Treaty of Paris, signed or subsequently adhered to by all the parties to the former treaty, with the addition of British India, the colonies of France, Spain, Holland, and Portugal, various British colonies, Persia, Japan, Liberia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, in fact every country in the world except China, the new convention receiving the name of the ‘Universal Postal Union.’ Under this important treaty all the consenting nations were declared to be “a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of correspondence.” Instead of the varying rates theretofore prevailing, equal rates, weights, and rules were established, and considerable reduction of postage followed its adoption. Except in the case of lengthy sea transit, a uniform rate of 25 centimes (5 cents) was adopted for a letter of 15 grams (½ ounce); of 10 centimes (2 cents) for post-cards; of 5 centimes (1 cent) for packets of print, etc., of 50 grams (2 ounces); and of 25 centimes (5 cents) for registration in Europe, and 50 centimes (10 cents) for registration beyond Europe. Prepayment of postage is required except on letters.

United States. In the English colonies of America before 1639 such postal facilities as existed were supplied by private enterprise. Letters from abroad were delivered at the wharf to those who called for them or sent to a near-by coffee-house for distribution. In 1639 the General Court of Massachusetts took the first step toward the establishment of a Government postal system by enacting the following decree: “It is ordered, that notice be given that Richard Fairbanks, his house in Boston, is the place appointed for all letters which are brought from beyond the seas, or are to be sent thither, to be left with him; and he is to take care that they are to be delivered or sent according to directions; and he shall be allowed for every letter a penny, and he must answer all miscarriages through his own neglect in this kind, provided that no man shall be compelled to bring his letters thither except he please.” In Virginia each planter was required to convey the dispatches, as they arrived, to the next plantation, and so on. In 1672 the Government of New York established a monthly mail to Boston. In 1683 and in 1693 post-offices were established in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire respectively. In 1692 the Legislature of Virginia passed an act reciting that one Thomas Neale had been empowered by letters patent from William and Mary to take charge of the postal business of the colonies. Neale's patent authorized him “to erect, settle, and establish offices in America for the receiving and dispatching away of letters and packquettes” and to appoint the necessary persons to assist him. This patent created for the first time an American inter-colonial postal service. In general its charges for carrying a letter ranged from 4d. to 15d., according to distance. The post roads were generally in bad condition; the riders were frequently untrustworthy, and the postmasters are represented as being little better.

No man in America was so identified with the interests of the colonial post-office as Benjamin Franklin. In 1737 he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1753 he received with William Hunter a royal commission as Deputy Postmaster-General for the colonies. Franklin immediately proceeded to systematize the department and personally made a tour of inspection, in which he visited every post-office in the country except that of Charleston, S. C. After four years of his administration the post-office yielded the salary of the postmasters, and a small revenue besides, and in 1774 a clear annual revenue of £3000 to Great Britain. In 1753 the delivery of letters by the penny post was begun, and also the practice of advertising letters remaining in the office in Philadelphia. In 1774 Franklin became obnoxious to the British Government, on account of his connection with the petition for the removal of Governor Hutchinson from Massachusetts, and on January 31st of that year he was dismissed from the Deputy Postmaster-Generalship. By this time the patriotic movement which concluded in the Revolution was in full tide, and so great was the feeling caused by Franklin's dismissal that private arrangements were made for carrying letters, and after 1774 the American post-office never again contributed a farthing to the British treasury. In fact, in 1775 the colonies combined to establish their own post-offices and to pay the necessary officials, the Continental Congress appointing a committee to devise a postal system, which went into effect July 26, 1775, when Benjamin Franklin was unanimously appointed Postmaster-General, with authority to establish a line of posts from Falmouth, Me., to Savannah, Ga., and as manv cross posts as might seem to him necessary. During the period of the Revolution the postage was paid in currency; but this depreciated so much in value that it was ordered that only specie should be received. In 1792 rates of postage were fixed which remained unaltered for nearly half a century. They were: for 30 miles and under, 6 cents; over 30 miles and not exceeding 60 miles, 8 cents; over 60 and not exceeding 100 miles, 10 cents; and so on up to 450 miles and over, for which the charge was 25 cents. On account of these expensive rates, comparatively few letters were sent through the mails, it being found cheaper to send them by private express. In 1845 the rates were lowered and a scale based on weight as well as distance was adopted. The postage on letters not exceeding ½ ounce in weight was fixed at 5 cents for any distance not exceeding 300 miles; over 300 miles it was 10 cents, with an increase of rate for every additional half ounce in weight. The rate on newspapers was nothing for distances under 30 miles; for over 30 miles and under 100, one cent was charged; over 100 miles, if beyond the borders of the State, the charge was 1½ cents. In 1851 the rate on letters not exceeding ½ ounce in weight was reduced to 3 cents for distances under 3000 miles and 6 cents for distances above 3000 miles. If not prepaid the rates were 5 and 12 cents respectively. Prior to 1851 no reduction was made for prepayment of postage. In 1855 a law was passed requiring prepayment, and this has continued to be the rule. In 1863 the element of distance as a factor in fixing the scale of rates was abolished and a uniform rate of 3 cents was established for letters not exceeding ½ ounce in weight. In 1883 this rate was reduced to 2 cents.

Stamps. In 1847 adhesive postage stamps were first introduced into the United States, but, on account of the high rate of postage and the provision allowing optional prepayment, they did not come into general use until 1855, when the rates were reduced and prepayment required. In 1852 stamped envelopes were introduced and in 1872 postal cards were authorized. In 1879 double or reply postal cards were authorized, and in 1898 private mailing cards were allowed to be sent through the mails at the rate of one cent postage, subject to certain restrictions prescribed by the Postmaster-General.

Classification of Mail Matter. Domestic mail matter is arranged into four classes. The first class includes letters, postal cards, and all matter wholly or partly in writing, whether sealed or unsealed (except manuscript and corrected proof). The rate on all matter of this class is two cents an ounce or fraction thereof. On postal cards it is one cent each, the price for which they are sold. On ‘drop letters’ the rate is two cents an ounce at free delivery offices and one cent elsewhere. The rule is prepayment except where the amount of the postage exceeds two cents, in which case if the weight does not exceed four pounds the excess of two cents may be called for from the addressee. Second-class matter includes newspapers and other periodical publications issued as often as four times a year, which bear a date of issue and are numbered consecutively and issue from a known office of publication, and which are in the form of printed sheets without substantial binding. The rate of postage on second-class matter when sent by the publisher from the office of publication, or by a news agency to actual subscribers or to other news agents, is one cent a pound or fraction thereof. To actual subscribers within the county in which the paper is published postage is free except at free delivery offices. To all other persons than publishers and newsdealers the rate of postage on second-class matter is one cent for four ounces or fraction thereof to any place in the United States, Porto Rico, Guam, Philippine Islands, Canada, and Mexico. Third-class matter includes books, circulars, pamphlets, and other matter wholly in print (not included in second class), proof-sheets, corrected proof-sheets, and manuscript copy accompanying the same. By act of July 24, 1888, seeds, bulbs, roots, scions, and plants are also mailable at third-class rates. The rate of postage on third-class matter is one cent for each two ounces or fractional part thereof, to be fully prepaid by postage stamps affixed thereto. Fourth-class matter includes all not embraced in the first three classes which is not in its form or nature liable to destroy, deface, or otherwise damage the contents of the mail-bag or harm the person of any one engaged in the postal service and not above the weight prescribed by law. The rate of postage is one cent an ounce or fraction thereof, to be prepaid by ordinary stamps. No package of third or fourth class matter weighing more than four pounds will be received for conveyance by mail except single books. Destructive articles, obscene and scurrilous matter, lottery circulars and tickets are excluded from the mails, and the Postmaster-General is empowered by Congress to direct any postmaster to withhold mail addressed to any person or firm conducting a business which he is satisfied is a fraudulent one.

Registered Letters. By an act of 1855 provision was made for a system of registration by which extra precaution is taken in the transmission of valuable letters and parcels upon payment of a fee. of eight cents in addition to the regular postage. The postal officials take special care of such letters, but the Government, until recently, refused to assume responsibility for such letters when lost. By an act of 1897, however, provision was made for indemnifying persons who lose registered letters and parcels of value, but the limit of indemnity is $25 or the actual value of the article where that is less than $25. In 1898, in more than 15,000,000 pieces of registered mail, there were but 504 cases of actual loss.

Money Orders. In 1864 the postal money order system was adopted, by which one is enabled to transmit money through the mails by making a deposit of the amount with the postmaster and receiving an order on the postmaster of the place to which the money is to be sent. No single money order for more than $100 may be issued. The fees charged range from five to thirty cents, according to the amount sent. For international money orders the fees range from 10 cents to $1.

Free Delivery. The system of delivering mail by carriers at the houses and offices of persons to whom it is addressed was first introduced on a small scale in 1863. In 1865 free delivery was extended to all places having a population of 50,000, and such other places as in the opinion of the Postmaster-General might seem expedient. In 1873 the system was extended to all places of 20,000 inhabitants and over, and in 1887 to cities of 10,000 inhabitants or whose postal receipts amounted to $10,000. Provision was also made in 1885 for special or immediate delivery of letters within certain limits upon the payment of a fee of 10 cents in the form of a special stamp. In 1896 an experiment of delivering mail to inhabitants of rural districts was tried. The results were so satisfactory that the system has been largely extended. In 1902 there were 11,650 established free delivery routes in the United States and preparations were being made to add many more.

Parcels Post. In the United States there is no distinct parcels post as in England, parcels being conveyed through the regular mails as fourth-class matter. Arrangements, however, exist with Mexico, certain of the West Indies, and certain Central and South American countries providing for a parcels post between the countries concerned.

The Franking Privilege. The privilege of sending and receiving mail free of postage was once enjoyed by the President of the United States, Vice-President, heads of departments, Senators and Representatives, and other officials of the Government during their official terms. For a time the privilege was conferred on all ex-Presidents and widows of ex-Presidents. By an act of 1873 this privilege was abolislied, but by later acts it was conferred on all officers of the Government in the case of official correspondence. In 1895 the privilege was voted to members of Congress for their official correspondence.

Growth of the Postal System. The growth of the postal business in its various branches has been almost phenomenal. The following table shows by decades the increase in the number of offices, receipts, and expenditures from 1792 to the present:

YEAR Number
 of offices 
Receipts  Expenditures 

1792    195 $67,443  $54,530 
1802  1,114 327,044  269,866 
1812  2,610 649,208  540,165 
1822  4,709 1,117,490  1,167,572 
1832  9,205 2,258,570  2,266,171 
1842 13,733 4,546,849  5,674,752 
1852 20,901 6,925,971  7,108,459 
1862 28,875 8,299,821  11,125,364 
1872 31,863 21,915,426  26,658,192 
1882 46,231 41,883,005  40,482,021 
1892 67,119 70,930,475  76,980,846 
1902 75,924  121,848,047  124,809,217 

The largest items of expenditure were for transportation of the mails on railroads, compensation of postmasters, free delivery service, compensation of clerks, and transportation of the mails on the star routes. From 1880 to 1898 the population of the country increased 50 per cent., while the volume of postal business increased 150 per cent. In 1845 the total number of pieces of mail handled in the United States did not exceed 29,000,000. During the year 1902 the number of pieces of mail handled amounted to over 8,000,000,000 of ordinary mail, besides 22,831,400 pieces of registered matter. During the same year 41,785,438 domestic and international money orders were issued, having a face value of $336,525,752. The total number of postage stamps, stamped envelopes, postal cards, etc., was 6,061,456,127, having a total value of over $112,000,000. Consult: Lewins, Her Majesty's Mails (London 1864); Joyce, History of the Post-Office (London, 1893); British Postal Guide and Post-Office Handbook; Cushing, Our Post-Office (Boston, 1893); American Postal Guide, Annual Reports of the Postmaster-General. See Postage Stamps.