How the Post Office Made America

This Wendover Productions video was made possible
by Away. Get $20 off the perfect suitcase from Away
with the code “Wendover” at checkout. The Post Office Made America. It’s an ambitious claim, I know, but without
it the United States as we know it today would not exist. As author Winifred Gallagher eloquently pointed
out in her book, “How the Post Office Created America,” in the years following the American
Revolution, one didn’t say, “the United States is,” they said, “the United States
are.” The country at the time was just a lose collectivity
of states. The national government was weak—people
identified with their state first and their country second. With the opening of the post office, however,
Americans across the continent had for the first time a direct link to the federal government
and the outside world. In the New England colonies that preceded
the United States, infrastructure was poor. It was considered a great achievement when
travelers could finally reach New York from Boston in under a week. There was little emphasis on creating roads
between colonies since each was a unique, independent entity. Some have even attributed the colonist’s
lack of attachment to the crown to their lack of roads. Those living outside of cities might have
never met a royal official in their lives just because of how hard it was to get around. Given this, the crown’s postal service in
the colonies was slow, expensive, and emphasized links across the Atlantic to Britain almost
more than it did links between the colonies. Before the American Revolution there were
unofficial, almost black market ways of getting mail around, but the increasingly legitimate
continental congress—the group that eventually declared American independence—realized
that in order to properly coordinate and collaborate, the member colonies needed a way to effectively
communicate. Therefore, surprisingly, the United States
Post Office was founded almost a full year before the United States itself. In the century following its founding, the
US had a bit of a good problem—it expanded in territory faster than it could expand in
people. For much of its history and still to an extent
today, the United States was a country of vast, untamed wilderness. This was especially true in the early years
to the west of the Appalachians. Despite the gold rush, California only hit
a population of 1 million in about 1890. By that time the nation had a population of
over 60 million. And between California and the Appalachians
during the early 1800s there was hardly anything— especially roads. California might as well have been an island. To get there, most people and mail would take
a steamship down to Panama, cross the country on land, and then reboard a ship to California
rather than attempting to cross the continent by land. People were naturally afraid to settle the
frontier. The idea of being physically and informationally
detached from the civilized world while surrounded by untamed and dangerous wilderness made it
difficult for the new nation to push west. You have to remember that until the telegraph
became widespread in the 1850s and 60s, mail was quite literally the only way to communicate
long-distance. If you had a post office, you were connected,
if you didn’t, you were alone. Therefore, one of the first steps for a new
town to legitimize itself was to appeal to the federal government for a post office,
and this was usually granted. Having a physical vestige of the federal government
in towns across the continent was immensely beneficial. Many would even say it played a large role
in America’s success. You see the US today as a fiercely nationalistic
country, but, as mentioned, for a while state came before country, however, these new brick
and mortar representations of the power and benefit of the federal government helped tie
the nation together, but the post office’s impact didn’t stop at its mere existence. Newspapers shipped free—or at least close
to free—and that revolutionized the spread of information. In the 1850s, this meant that someone in brand
new Houston, Texas could read a newspaper just as easily as someone in Washington, DC. If it had been more difficult to distribute
national newspapers, individuals wouldn’t have had information on national politics. Without knowledge of national politics, the
state might have stayed as the dominant entity. The long overland routes to tiny frontier
towns absolutely did not make money, but the post office wasn’t supposed to make money
at the time. It was there to make living in a frontier
town of 1,000 as similar as possible to living in an east coast town of 100,000. 150 years ago, it took more than a month and
a half to travel to many parts of the frontier from New York… if you could get to them
at all, however, the post office needed faster routes so it created post roads—long rudimentary
overland routes. With time and traffic, however, these post
roads developed into America’s first interstate roads. The informational links led to a physical
links. A big question, however, was how to efficiently
get the mail out into and across the frontier. In 1860, the railroad ended in western Missouri
and after that the mail had to go out over land. The Pony Express was a short lived commercial
express mail service connecting the end of the railroad to California. In only 10 days, it could get a letter from
the Atlantic to the Pacific. This was unbelievable at the time. Once mail arrived at the end of the railroad
line in St Joseph’s, Missouri, a rider would take the pouch of a mail and immediately start
riding west at up to 25 miles per hour—full speed—and then every 10 or so miles they’d
stop at a Pony express station to switch to a fresh horse. Every 75 miles, they’d switch riders to
keep the mail pouch thundering across the country day and night. This didn’t come cheap—it was the equivalent
of $130 to send just one half ounce letter—but time is money and people did pay. One of the most famous rides of the shortlived
Pony Express was following the 1860 presidential election. Telegraph did exist at the time but it didn’t
stretch all the way across the country. The eastern line ended in Fort Kearny, Nebraska,
so immediately following the news of Lincoln’s win, a rider set out west. Using the relay system, riders made their
way across the country to Fort Churchill, Nevada—the beginning of the western telegraph
line—to transmit the news. The west coast papers therefore published
the news of Lincoln’s win only seven days and 17 hours behind the east coast papers. Just two years earlier, it took 17 days for
news to cross the continent. This was an unbelievable feat. With the completion of the transcontinental
telegraph line in 1861, however, the Pony Express closed its doors after only 19 months
of operation, but it did play a big role in the innovation of mail systems. As mail volume rose to the west coast, the
US Post Office looked for ways to further shorten the travel time across the continent. Until the opening of the transcontinental
railroad in 1863, most transcontinental mail went out to Missouri by rail before switching
to lower cost stagecoach rather than the Pony Express. At first all westward mail was put on the
train to be sorted in Missouri, but in 1862 the first post office on wheels was put into
operation. A staffer would sort the mail while on the
move in an identical way as a post office on land so when it arrived in St Joseph’s,
Missouri, it was all split up into different bundles for different destinations. This system proved incredibly successful and
in the coming decades, the post office gave exorbitant subsidies and payments to railroads
across the country to move mail. Most lines to small communities would never
have been financially viable without the post office contracts they attracted. The Post Office, therefore, was instrumental
in physically connecting small towns across America to the outside world. Expansion was getting easy. This role in innovation happened once again
in in the 1920’s. Aviation became big during World War One,
but once peace was settled it almost became irrelevant. Civil aviation was at first nearly nonexistent. Just months after the end of World War One,
however, the first regularly scheduled airmail route between DC and New York began. By 1925, airmail routes stretched to hundreds
of towns all across the United States. Just like with the railroad, the post’s
subsidies allowed for air service to towns that would never have been profitable with
passenger only flights. The US air mail service grew to become the
largest in the world making the US one of the most connected countries in the world
and its legacy still survives today. Many of the airlines that merged into United,
Delta, and American Airlines were founded as airmail operators. It’s easy to forget that 200 years ago only
8 million people lived in the 20 states and four territories that formed the Union. The continent filled in incredibly fast and
a lot of credit has to be given to the postal system. Few countries as large as the US have such
a strong national identity. The spread of information is one of the greatest
determinants of a country’s success and its unlikely the US would be such a global
superpower today without the education, connectivity, and innovation that the post office bought. Of the five largest countries in the world,
the US is the only to not have a serious present-day sovereignty movement within its borders. The has to be at least partially attributed
to how easy it has always been to spread information across the country. It may be obsolete today, but the post office
was once the peak of innovation—so much so that it made America. This video was made possible by Away. This past weekend I travelled transatlantic
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Productions and get, as they say, “first class luggage at a coach price.” If you haven’t already, please check out my
new podcast called Showmakers linked here, check out my last video, and subscribe to
this channel. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you again
in two weeks for another Wendover Productions video.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

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  2. What is the serious present day sovereignty movement in Brazil today. I live have and it doen't really exist. Not a serious one at least.

  3. "of the 5 largest countries in the world the US is the only to not have a serious present day sovereignty movement within its borders". Wrong! Brazil doens't have one either. For precision: there is a pathetic one in the south that has virtually no support, no exposure (most people aren't even aware of its existence) and isn't realistic at all (not only politically, but also economic and infrastructure-wise). and I wonder, as well, if we could call nowadays the Quebec question a serious threat to Canadian territorial integrity. I'd guess not, but I don't know

  4. Other than the Deep South (and maybe not even there) — I'm not sure the United States can be considered "intensely nationalist"

  5. It reminds me of Brooklyn nine-nine in the episode where they need to work together with post office federal agent lol

  6. Illuminating. Thanks for sharing. Though, I would've liked to've know how pneumatic post systems fit into this history of the US post.

  7. I work for USPS I carry mail, it is a difficult job at times. Everyone works really hard and they are very helpful. Serving people mail is very nice. I think the USPS is the only government institution I like and respect.

  8. U know how it is, White Supremacy. It's too much to put in 1 comment. Crap like this about the empty, untamed, & wild wilderness. Code words for we killed almost everyone here, enslaved them and wiped their children's minds to believe they were from somewhere esle. This white-face info is like most of the info you get here writen by the victors so no need to mention the savages that probably did most of the work while so-called whites took all the pix like they did some shit. Now you see y they have so many dislikes.

  9. I challenge your last statement of the post office being obsolete today. I'm still getting Amazon deliveries on Sundays, and having most of my online orders delivered earlier than expected.

  10. INCORRECT. Brazil has no serious or important secession movement. Certainly no more significative than the people who want to secede California.

  11. Great information on our postal service. RELATED VIDEO REQUEST: Can you please consider doing a video on the Universal Postal Union? This agency (within the United Nations) coordinates postal policies among its members. I just learned about this agency when the US decided to leave the organization. Thank you

  12. Did you mean that these other countries have separatist movements because they don't have a good way for information to flow around? I would be very skeptical about this claim

  13. Dude, I will never look at a USPS the same way again. This content was super awesome and educational. Thanks a ton!

  14. "The US is the only to not have a serious present sovereignty movement within its borders"

    How do you make such a bold statement like that talking about a post system in the 1800s when, at its peak, the American civil war broke out.

    Also, we had virtually the same post-service history in Canada… Except we attribute our unity mostly to railroads (lots of the same arguments made in this video). There still exists a sovereignty movement, though it's relatively calm at the moment I'd say.

    Good video otherwise

  15. Benjamin Franklin was Postmaster General under the British before Independence. His experience was essential to founding the Post Office, and placing it in the Constitution.

  16. Thank you for this! Your presentation is perfection about the genius spirit that created America. It brought tears to my eyes to think how great the people were who built this fabulous System. We are very spoiled at this time & do not appreciate all that has been done to make our world full of comfort & ease.

  17. When you charge your cell phone for the fifth time, do you replace batteries embedded in the suitcase or do you plug the suitcase into a wall socket to resupply it with power?

  18. 9:15. Not only US has not sovereignty problems within its borders, Brazil too. Sure it's not a country well developed – still far behind US – but sure it is a well cohesive country.

  19. and as you can see in kevin costner's documentary "postman" the us post office kept on holding up civilization long after the united states had vanished.

  20. By far the best video that I watched out of all them. It shows the most important innovations that made this country so amazing. Love your vids

  21. fort kearny nebraska is brutal in the winter, man I feel bad for those postmen back then, the winters were probably way wilder.

  22. As a luggage repairman I can tell you Briggs and Riley is the best made with a lifetime no BS warranty. Not sure about the USB part though.

  23. 3:58 so you are saying that a turkish newspaper was the primary thing in US' foundation? seems legit

  24. Love the videos! This is the first one where I don't really agree with your thesis at the end. It is hard to argue that Americans are all on the same page…. There may not be any official sovereignty movements but there is clearly a huge divide in what they believe being an American means/requires (which is not nearly as contentious an issue in Canada). Also they had a civil war.

  25. This is obviously 2 years after the fact, and I did enjoy the video, but I think the language around the West's relative isolation from the East Coast could be done a little more carefully- "untamed and dangerous wilderness" and "vast, untamed wilderness" both play into the erasure of Native Americans, and suggest that "taming" this land would be necessary and beneficial.

  26. A lot of us still identify with our state first and in many regards we’re still not one single state called the USA, and it’s frustrating when people try to treat us like one giant homogenous state with one economy.

  27. I think its too simplistic to credit the post office for a lack of a sovereignty movement in the US, it's more due to ethnic makeup, and don't look now but you have the Viva la Raza movement and push for bilingual Spanish nowadays in places like CA, TX, FL.Not to mention Texas always points to its ability to leave anytime, and has the strongest "state first" mentality. You're about to find out what it was like for Canada to have Quebec, Russia to have Siberians/Central Asians vs Europeans, China to have Tibetans, etc.

  28. My brother is a mailman. We (America) may have lots of problems, but watching this video reminds me that we can be proud, united and patriotic about at least one thing, our excellent postal service.

  29. You do realise that batteries are not allowed in an aircrafts cargo bay

    So that expensive battery operated suitcase cannot be checked in, you better hope it fits in the overhead bin, otherwise you just wasted your money

  30. It greatly expanded commerce. Anyone, no matter where they were on the continent could look up in a Sears and Roebuck catalog almost anything they needed or wanted up to and including a covered wagon and get it delivered within a month or so. The video touched on it but it probably should have a complete video on how the post office started and expanded POST ROADS that now go by a different name INTERSTATE HIGHWAYS.

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