Parcel Post: Delivery of Dreams

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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".

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.

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. Small animals that did not require food or water while in transit were accepted as parcel post.

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.

Further reading:

  • Arkell, J.O.A. Parcel post labels of Great Britain. Batley, England: Harry Hayes, 1999.
  • Bruns, James H. Reaching rural America: the evolution of rural free delivery. Washington, DC: National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
  • Danish parcel post "Postfaerage" stamps. Plovst, Denmark: Danmarks Postfaege Maerker, 1962.
  • Davey, Paul N. Parcel post stamps of China. Beijing: China Philatelic Society, 1989.
  • Epstein, Rachel. Mailbox, USA: stories of mailbox owners and makers: a celebration of mailbox art in America. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1996.
  • Fuller, Wayne E. RFD, the farmers' mail. Columbus, OH: Ohio Historical Society, 1987.
  • Gobie, Henry M. U.S. parcel post: a postal history. [s.l.] W.M. Gobie; Miami: distributed by Postal Publications, 1979.
  • Hagen, Helmuth S. Railway stamps of South Africa: the railway parcels, newspaper and official stamps of the South African railways and the various administrations which preceded it. Johannesburg: Philatelic Federation of Southern Africa, 1985.
  • Herendeen, David L. Parcel post stamps of the Ivory Coast. [s.l.] Herendeen Enterprises, 2001.
  • Johl, Max G. United States postage stamps, 1902-1935: regular issues, parcel post, airmails. Lawrence, MA: Quarterman Publications, 1976.
  • Miller, Lester F. 100 years of rural free delivery. Alexandria, VA: National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, 1996.
  • Printing history of special delivery, parcel post, parcel post due, special handling, registration, official mail and postal savings flat plates. Madison, WI: Bureau Issues Association, 1994.
  • Richow, Harold E. Encyclopedia of R.F.D. cancels. Lake Oswego, OR: La Posta Publications, 1995.
  • South Carolina, 1896-1996: celebrating 100 years rural free delivery. South Carolina: South Carolina Rural Letter Carriers' Association, 1996.
  • Turnbaugh, William A. R.F.D. country!: mailboxes and post offices of rural America. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publication Co., 1988.