One of ten “postal people” stamps honoring the diverse and robust workforce in 1973, just after it was undercut by reorganization as a government corporation.
In a statement released on April 30, 2020, the United States Postal Service (USPS) outlined its COVID-19 policies. But this government agency, founded at the dawn of the republic, also used the pandemic to argue for its ongoing relevance. “We provide a vital public service that is a part of this nation’s critical infrastructure,” the statement read. It closed by appealing to the 1970 statute that transformed our original Post Office into a corporation, “operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by an Act of Congress, and supported by the people.”
The word “service” in the statement and the statute resonates defiantly in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 120,000 people in the United States to date, stymied our economic and social life, and overwhelmed the few unemployment protections that remain after a decades-long attack against government programs designed to help any of us facing hard times. The Postal Service recently found itself the subject of such attacks when President Trump reportedly told Congress that he would veto the pandemic aid package passed in March if any of the funds were earmarked to directly support the Postal Service.
Indeed, for a nation confined to home, COVID-19 has elevated the importance of the mail, and popular dependence on it. The USPS statement notes, among other things, that the government agency “delivers much needed medications.” The daily work of its employees has provided “an essential service” by allowing people to comply with “shelter-in-place orders or other social distancing restrictions.” In contrast to the business world’s sense of delivery services as a convenience sold to consumers for profit (as in “service with a smile”), the USPS here refers to service as a duty rendered to our nation.
As David Hochfelder has argued, the tension between consumerism and citizenship that lurks in the term “service” has marked national postal delivery from its inception. Originally founded as a government department in 1792, the Post Office was conceived to serve the needs of a geographically vast democracy. But the fledgling agency was hampered from its inception. Expanding its low-cost services and speed of delivery throughout the nineteenth century, it increasingly found itself competing for customers with for-profit private businesses, such as express services and the railroads that the USPS depended on to transport mail.
Though railroad companies earned significant revenues hauling mail as freight, they and the private express companies like Wells Fargo also had an advantage: the Post Office was forbidden by law to carry parcels larger than four pounds. Weakly regulated, the railroads could charge high shipping rates while servicing only the most profitable routes. In contrast, the Post Office was mandated to deliver to all citizens, even those living in remote locations, and all for a flat rate—regardless of what it actually cost to make a delivery.
Democracy has a price, and the Post Office struggled to bear it, even as the volume of mail it handled exploded, from 38 billion pieces in 1945 to 85 billion in 1970. Without recourse to tactics private delivery firms used to cut costs and maximize profits—laying off workers, refusing certain services, and setting their own prices—the Post Office found itself the subject of public and political scrutiny because of its annual losses.
Moreover, the Post Office had long been a bastion of unionized labor power—its first union was incorporated in 1889—and particularly Black organized labor power. Given the discrimination in the private sector, the Post Office became what Henry W. McGee, NAACP activist and the first Black postmaster of Chicago, called a “haven” for Black people. For this reason, Black postal workers were often better educated than their white peers and had strong connections to Black freedom movements and Black intellectual culture. They also tended to favor a more radical set of leftist politics than the more conservative politics of the white unions. While the Post Office was nonetheless an institution largely structured along white supremacist lines, Black postal workers’ resilience in the face of such discrimination gave them a nuanced understanding of political power and resistance.
Meanwhile, Congress controlled the Post Office’s budget. For decades it kept postal rates low rather than raising prices to invest in innovations. As a result, private delivery services that did make such investments were gradually seen as better and more reliable. Postal workers were stuck with outdated technology and infrastructure designed for a population far smaller than the one they found themselves serving, even as innovations designed to streamline mail delivery, such as the zip code, were initially viewed as anti-business and a form of government surveillance. Post offices themselves became physically run-down.
In October 1966, the situation came to a crisis when Chicago’s main post office, one of the largest in the world, broke down, stymied by a backlog of mail exceeding 10 million pieces. Although this was seen as a failure of the Post Office, the department was a victim of its own success and people’s need of its services. Volume that exceeded capacity, not lack of use, was its downfall.
In accordance with what would soon come to be known as “free market ideology,” the Nixon administration determined to improve the postal service by making it more like a business and less like a government agency. In 1970, on the heels of the largest wildcat strike in U.S. history on the part of postal workers, one driven by its Black leaders, the Post Office was reorganized as a government corporation and rebranded as the United States Postal Service. As Amy Traub argues, centering race within discussions of postal reorganization demonstrates the degree to which this neoliberal turn in postal history was an attempt to break up organized Black power and stymie effective multiracial organizing. As part of rebranding the Postal Service as a business, the more democratic understanding of the agency’s historic role was replaced by a consumer-oriented service philosophy.
Postal rates quickly shot up. Between 1919 and 1971, the charge for a First-Class letter had risen from two to eight cents, but it nearly quadrupled again during the USPS’s first two decades as a privatized agency. No longer viewed as citizens entitled to a government service, users of the mail were redefined as consumers who could be made to pay more. Perhaps to mollify customers, USPS advertisements of the 1990s encouraged people to use the Postal Service rather than its private competitors with the slogan, “We Deliver For You!” But despite rapidly increasing postal fees, the financial bottom line of the USPS remains hampered by its original democratic mandate: it cannot, after all, choose not to deliver everywhere in the world for a standard rate, regardless of what it costs to get a package or letter to its destination.
Now, we’re reaping the benefits—and the peril—of a neoliberal gambit that sees profit and loss as the only criteria for supporting a government institution. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified how essential a postal service—operating regardless of profitability—is to life in a democracy. This is true in good times, but especially true during a national emergency. In addition to the tax bills, medications, magazines, and personal missives that the Postal Service delivers every day, it has become the guarantor of another fundamental democratic institution: voting.
We need the USPS. And Trump needs it, too. After all, like all presidents, he will be eligible for a postage stamp in the year following his death. That is, if he doesn’t destroy the USPS first.
Laura Goldblatt, is an assistant professor of English, and Richard Handler is a professor of anthropology, both at the University of Virginia. They are co-authoring a book on the iconography of citizenship on U.S. postage stamps.