The Post Office

The aspects of Henkin’s argument that I found particularly intriguing had to do with Americans using the Post Office in the Nineteenth Century for pecuniary purposes. Specifically, Henkin wrote, “ For most Americans, and certainly for the Post Office Department, the enclosure that attracted the most interest was money. In an era before personal checking accounts and before money orders (which were introduced by the Post Office in 1864), Americans relied on the mails to conduct financial transactions.”[1] I found this passage and the few paragraphs that followed particularly interesting because it gave insight into a function of the Post Office that was unfamiliar to me.  I never thought of the need to complete financial transactions and how inconvenient it must have been because in today’s society it is extremely convenient. Thus, finding out that by 1855 one hundred million dollars in cash was being passed through the mail each year was fascinating. This fact provides a concrete example of just how much people trusted the Post Office in the nineteenth century; however this trust did not come easily. Merchants, the primary conductors of financial transactions through the Post Office, started off by sending drafts, checks and other forms of money but as the process continued to be smooth for the merchants, they began using money itself in their transactions. The trust in the Postal Service was a main reason for the huge usage of this institution Nineteenth-Century America. It is very interesting that so much money was being circulated throughout the Post Office and there was such a high success rate in these transactions. Nowadays, with various forms of technology to send money to other people, the use of the Postal Service for this reason is very limited; however, in the nineteenth century, this was the most secure and quickest way to complete a financial transaction, so merchants relied on it to conduct their business in a timely fashion. This brings up another point about the Post Office, the fact that merchants were primary patrons of this service. The accessibility of the Post Office was integral to the merchants and their need to conduct business in places far from their shops. The Post Office, hence, was important for merchants in Nineteenth-Century America, as its functions served as a great pathway for merchants to conduct their business. The last point of interest from this passage was the transition from counting every dollar bill as a separate sheet of paper, which made it very costly to send money through the Post Office, to not treating it that way. This was a major cause of the influx of patrons using the Post Office to send pecuniary transactions. This passage made me think more about communications in America at this time and just how efficient it was becoming in the nineteenth century. With the efficiency of communication in America rising at a rampant rate, were people far from each other geographically getting the same news? Also I am wondering how much money was lost/stolen from patrons of the Postal Service who used it to complete financial transactions, and if said people, were able to sue the Post Office for their lost/stolen money? Communication was so crucial to America at this time, so was the Post Office the major pathway for communication to travel? These questions, I can imagine, will be answered by the end of the semester, as we will complete our study of this topic, but they were provoked in my mind by reading this fascinating argument in Henkin’s book.

[1] David Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2006), 52.

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4 thoughts on “The Post Office

  1. You raise some good points here Pat. The concept of sending money in the main in the current day is a frightening thought, because of how easy it would be to lose it. I think back at this time, it was an essential way to transfer money, because of the limited technology, unlike today, but what would happen if money was lost? I wonder if any fights broke out because the receiver thought they were getting stiffed, when in fact, the money was just lost in the postal system. In terms of stealing money, do you think it was easy to identify what letters or envelopes had cash inside of them? Although it seems immoral, I’m sure plenty of people stole this money.

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    • Jen, I am not sure what would happen if the money was lost. My initial reaction would be to say the Post Office was not held liable for the lost money because there is a certain unknown that comes with sending anything through the Post Office. One envelope being dropped or one person stealing cash could lead to huge business implications. I could see a certain scenario where two people in business could have gotten into an altercation because of the mishandling by the Post Office of money; however Henkin is explicit in saying that there was great trust in the Post Office that was built up over time. As I said in my blog post, the merchants did not originally send dollar bills through the mail, they started with money orders and other forms of money and as their trust built up they started sending dollar bills. To answer your last question, I do think it was easy to identify cash being sent through the Post Office; however I believe the Post Office took great pride in being trustworthy to its patrons.

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  2. I’m curious whether Pat or Jen has ever heard of money orders, which is the current way that the Post Office uses to send money through the mail. The system came into being during the Civil War (in 1864) as a more secure way to send money than sending cash, which did lead to a great deal of loss and theft.

    Basically, what would happen is you would fill out a form at the Post Office (for a small amount, no more than $30 I think) and the form itself would travel to the recipient, who could redeem it for cash at their own post office. In other words, no actual cash traveled, and only the intended recipient could sign for the cash.

    They’re still in use today (though not nearly as extensively, as you both note).

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I also thought the idea of conducting financial transactions through the post office was a little strange. As someone who does most of their banking online, it’s fascinating to think that one hundred million dollars was transferred in 1855 by such a slow and insecure system. Your last statement makes this point all the more interesting. If people were charged for sending paper money in the mail, how could this be financially appealing to people. To lose money in order to send money elsewhere. However, after reading Dr. Adelman’s post, it seems like a more reasonable system with money orders instead of just mailing cash.

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