Book Review: ‘How The Post Office Created America’

The U.S. Postal Service is seen as an also-ran in the digital revolution. Email has eaten into the volume of mail it processes, and while home delivery for retail and food expands, the USPS has to compete against international private carriers such as FedEx, UPS, DHL. It also has to compete against homegrown delivery services from the likes of Google, Uber, Grubhub and of course, Amazon.

Yes, the USPS works with Amazon, delivering effective scale to keep its wheels greased. But it has had to make special and costly concessions to do so, such as Sunday delivery. There is no guarantee that Amazon will continue the relationship.

But the USPS isn’t ready to die. It retains an incredible delivery infrastructure of trucks, people, offices and sorting and delivery technology. Going forward, it can presumably leverage all this to scale winning solutions. Other postal eco-system players, i.e. Pitney Bowes, are similarly working on providing end-to-end solutions via its advanced sorting and delivery software networks.

Can we find answers for The Post Office’s future in its history? And the future of delivery in general? Winifred Gallagher’s “How the Post Office Created America,” traces the Post Office’s development in all its aspects – politically, economically and technologically, dating from its creation by Benjamin Franklin.

The book shows how the Post Office created a physical infrastructure for delivery that was so effective that it served as the model for the launch of AT&T’s phone network in the 1880s. In fact, AT&T Chairman Theodore Vail had previously worked with the Postal Service.

It also shows the role that the Post Office played in facilitating American ship, train and plane transportation; enabling home shopping with the likes of Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward; promoting information, entertainment and education publications via cut-rate second class mail privileges; and even the transmission of person-to-person funds. It also shows how the Post Office leveraged its giant scale– once it was finally seen as a “public good” rather than a pay-as-you-go business.

Gallagher’s book is a serious study of the Postal service’s history — politics and all. It isn’t always a light read. But it’s an important book for all students of communications and it does a great job of connecting all the dots.

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