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Parcel Post: Delivery of Dreams

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Produce delivered directly from Lancaster County by parcel post
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Produce delivered directly from Lancaster County by parcel post

The establishment of parcel post in 1913 had a tremendously stimulating effect on the national economy; it opened a world of opportunities for both farmers and merchants alike. Rural Americans were able to purchase foodstuffs, medicines, dry goods and other commodities not readily available to them previously. Even more conveniently, the goods were mailed directly to their homes. In addition, farmers were able to ship eggs and other produce directly to the consumer, saving both time and money.

Images courtesy National Postal Museum Library



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U.S.
 parcel post, a postal history
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Henry H. Gobie
U.S. parcel post, a postal history
Miami, FL: Postal Publications, 1979.

The establishment of parcel post in 1913 had a tremendously stimulating effect on the national economy; it opened a world of opportunities for both farmers and merchants alike. Rural Americans were able to purchase foodstuffs, medicines, dry goods and other commodities not readily available to them previously. Even more conveniently, the goods were mailed directly to their homes. In addition, farmers were able to ship eggs and other produce directly to the consumer, saving both time and money.

Images courtesy National Postal Museum Library



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L’Union Postale Universelle: sa Fondation et
Son Developpement, 1874-1949, Memoire
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L’Union Postale Universelle: sa Fondation et Son Developpement, 1874-1949, Memoire
Berne, Switzerland: Bureau International de l’Union, 1949.

The term “parcel post” refers to the sending of packages through the mail service. In 1878, the Congress of the Universal Postal Union established an international parcel post system. Four years later, the British parliament approved a bill implementing domestic, colonial and foreign parcel post services. Other countries quickly followed suit. The US Post Office Department agreed to deliver parcels sent into the country but refused to institute a domestic service.

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Rural Free Delivery in Westminster, Maryland 1899
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Rural Free Delivery in Westminster, Maryland 1899
1899.

In the late 1800’s, the National Grange and similar organizations concerned with farmers’ welfare lobbied Congress for the free delivery of mail to rural households. Many rural residents had to travel for days to retrieve their mail from distant post offices or pay private express companies for delivery. Finally, in October 1896, Congress approved the establishment of rural free delivery. It was a heady taste of life for rural Americans and soon increased the demand for delivery of packages containing foodstuffs, dry goods, drugs, tobacco and other commodities not easily available to farmers.

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Parcel Post Bill of 1912
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Parcel Post Bill of 1912
1912.

Private express companies and rural retail merchants fought tenaciously against parcel post but rural residents comprised 54 percent of the country’s population and they were equally vociferous. While the question was still being debated in Congress, one of the major express companies declared a large stockholder dividend. Public indignation at the exorbitant profits spurred Congress to resolve the issue quickly.

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Advertisement for farm products by parcel post
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Advertisement for farm products by parcel post

Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913 and was an instant success. During the first five days of service, 1,594 post offices reported handling over 4 million parcel post packages. The effect on the national economy was electric. Marketing through parcel post gave rise to great mail-order businesses. In addition, parcel post created an immediate demand for special packaging suitable for mailing the wide array of commodities considered deliverable under the system.

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Price List of Groceries
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Montgomery Ward and Co.
Price List of Groceries
Chicago: 1898-1900.

Montgomery Ward, the first mail-order house, started with a one-page catalog in 1872. With the advent of parcel post, the mail-order catalog became the one of the most important books in the farmhouse, second only to the Bible. In fact, the catalog was often called “The Homesteaders Bible” or the “Wish Book”.

Images courtesy National Museum of American History Library



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Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order office in Kodiak, Alaska
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Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order office in Kodiak, Alaska

Sears, Roebuck and Company followed Montgomery Ward in 1893. In 1897, one year after the start of rural free delivery, Sears boasted it was selling four suits and a watch every minute, a revolver every two minutes and a buggy every ten minutes. And within five years, Sears had tripled its revenues.

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Delivery of butter and eggs by parcel post
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Delivery of butter and eggs by parcel post

A large fleet of trucks started delivering parcel post shipments in 1918. Farmers were then able to ship eggs and other produce directly to the customer. Eggs quickly became a mainstay of parcel post. In fact, six eggs were the first objects sent by parcel post from St. Louis, Missouri to Edwardsville, Illinois. Mailed at noon, the eggs returned to St. Louis seven hours later, baked in a cake.

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Delivery of day-old chicks by parcel post
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Delivery of day-old chicks by parcel post

A staggering variety of goods was mailed by parcel post through the years. Small animals that did not require food or water while in transit were accepted as parcel post. Baby chicks – disliked by carriers because of their noise, smell and tendency to expire en route – were shipped via parcel post in specially constructed boxes. Prior to World War I, before the practice was banned, even children were sent parcel post. In 1914, the parents of a blonde four-year-old named May Pierstroff sent her from Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents in another part of the state for 53 cents, the going rate for chickens. Word of her excursion quickly prompted the Post Office Department to forbid sending any human being by mail.

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Parcel post transported by ship to Alaska and then overland by
dog sledge
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Parcel post transported by ship to Alaska and then overland by dog sledge

In 1916, an entire bank – probably the largest and heaviest object ever sent by parcel post – was dismantled and shipped from Salt Lake City, Utah to Vernal, California. Its more than 80,000 bricks were mailed in 50-pound lots, one ton at a time. While the shipments saved the cost of wagon freight, they caused untold misery for local postmasters and railroad workers. Too late to stop the shipment, the Postmaster General decreed that henceforth a single shipper could post no more than 200 pounds a day.

Images courtesy National Postal Museum Library



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Hope Diamond
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The Hope Diamond
Photograph, 1993.

Some postal customers have entrusted treasured belongings to parcel post. Jeweler Harry Winston mailed the world-famous Hope diamond from New York City to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in an ordinary brown package. The diamond was insured for $1 million.

Images courtesy National Museum of Natural History



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United States Postal Service aircraft transporting the mails
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United States Postal Service aircraft transporting the mails

In 1948, an air parcel post service was established. Under treaty arrangements, the United States exchanges parcel post with most countries of the world. Private freight companies, such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service, compete with the U.S. Postal Service for domestic and international delivery.

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Coffee break, parcel post style
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Coffee break, parcel post style

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Parcel post stamps of 1912-1913
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Parcel post stamps of 1912-1913
1912-1913.

Shortly before World War I, the United States Post Office Department issued a special series of twelve parcel post stamps. Their depiction of the mail handling operations of the time is highly unusual. However, the stamps were always less of a help than a hindrance. All twelve stamps were of similar shade and design, with similar frames and lettering around central vignettes. Postal clerks found it difficult to readily distinguish denominations. For example, the one cent and one dollar stamp differ only in the word “cent” or “dollar” between the big numerals at the bottom. Consequently, the issue of twelve stamps lasted less than a year.

For the collector interested in postal history, the four low values provide especially interesting flashbacks. The one-cent stamp shows a postal clerk sorting mail in front of a vast array of mailbags suspended from a semi-circular frame. The two-cent stamp shows a city carrier with his hands full of bundled letters and a pouch full of mail. Either this was a particularly busy day or the carrier was on a route with few relay boxes to permit him to carry a more reasonable quantity of mail. The three-cent stamps shows a postman aboard a moving mail car as he retrieves a full sack of mail picked up “on the fly” by the catcher arm. The most archaic scene in this group is on the four-cent stamp with its horse-drawn rural carrier. Perhaps the most interesting stamp of the series is the twenty-cent airmail stamp, which shows a primitive bi-plane not too far evolved from the original Wright flyer!

Images courtesy National Postal Museum Library



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