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A Great Package Deal
January 26, 2013 10:32 AM   Subscribe

The US Postal Service is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Parcel Post by renaming it "Standard Post".

Introduced on January 1, 1913, Parcel Post was called "A New Year's gift by the American government to the American people":
In actual operation, it is expected that the parcel post will bring the factory and the farm into closer touch with the consumer, and that it may reduce the cost of living. The largest city and the most obscure hamlet alike will enjoy the advantages of the parcel post. It will be open to all on precisely equal terms.
It was "the most gigantic transportation proposition ever undertaken by the government."
The service will extend over more than 1,435,000 miles of transportation lines, including 233,899 miles of railways, 164,399 miles of star routes, 29,283 miles of steamboat lines, and 1,007,772 miles of rural mail routes.
The first package delivered by Parcel Post contained 11 pounds of apples, sent by the Woodrow Wilson Club of Princeton to the New Jersey governor and President-Elect at his home in Princeton. The delivery took three minutes.

The service was immediately popular. 300 million packages were mailed in the service's first six months. December 1913 saw the biggest Christmas mail rush the post office had ever seen.

For the first six months, special stamps were required for mailing parcels, but the rules were soon relaxed to allow the use of regular letter postage stamps. (The 20¢ Parcel Post stamp was the first in any country to feature an airplane.) People took advantage of the low rates to mail their laundry home from college and bricks enough to build a bank. Shortly after its introduction, a man inquired of the Postmaster General how a baby should be wrapped so that it "would comply with regulations and be allowed shipment by parcel post as the express co are to rough in handling." Only after a few successful deliveries was the shipment of children forbidden.

Mail-order companies benefitted greatly from the new shipping service. Sears, Roebuck and Company increased its sales fivefold in 1913, and would become Parcel Post's single biggest customer. The biggest losers: small-town stores that couldn't compete with the catalog companies; and the express companies that previously handled any packages weighing more than four pounds.

Parcel Post was a boon to rural farmers. Almost everything that could be raised on a farm could be shipped Parcel Post—excluding live animals. This prohibition was later eased to permit the shipment of animals wearing badges inscribed "Harmless," but not everyone agreed on the definition:
The Cincinnati postmaster was inclined to doubt that fair postmistresses or a bevy of young women clerks in the home post office would look upon a crate of live mice as harmless. Also, Mr. Behymer appeared not to look with serenity upon the prospect some day of being obliged to "attend, water and feed various fowls and irritated livestock," as part of the daily postal routine.

The evolution of the egg, he felt, was not so bad, explaining that first the parcel post handled crates of eggs, then the contents of the eggs after hatching, in the form of live chicks, only to be followed by fully grown chanticleers and domesticated motherly hens.

But when alligators and other gruesome creatures happen along in the usual run of business and, as was the case recently at an Ohio post office, escape from their crate and wallow about the office snapping broomsticks and otherwise giving vent to playful pranks until reduced to the official "harmless" stage, he declared it was about time to call a halt.
The regulations were again revised:
Harmless live animals, rated as inoffensive, and not requiring food or water in transit, may go by mail, along with baby terrapins, soft shell crabs, blood worms and chameleons. Under new regulations, live alligators up to 20 inches in length are the only live alligators Uncle Sam will handle.
Eighteen months after the advent of Parcel Post, James Middleton assessed its impact:
In every American city and town, a constant line of people forms before a window labeled "Parcel Post;" they hand in their packages, have them weighed for postage and inspected for proper packing, and watch with contentment as the attendant throws them into a large receptacle, which, when full — and it fills with amazing speed — is wheeled off to the mailing department. Every city letter carrier shows evidences, in a somewhat more bulkily filled shoulder bag, of the new dispensation; and brightly painted "screen wagons" and automobiles, packed to capacity with miscellaneous bundles, are dashing through every city street. On every country road the wagon of the rural carrier, for many years yawning half vacant for an adequate load, has now found its occupation; in more remote recesses the lonely star route man, making his way over mountains and through forests on horse, mule, wagon, stagecoach, or even snow shoes, plays his part in advancing civilization.
posted by Knappster (44 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
I guess my invitation to the 100th anniversary celebration got lost in the mail.
posted by notme at 10:54 AM on January 26, 2013


Outstanding post. The point of parcel post seems to have been lost in recent years, as the Postal Service has taken to pricing it only a few cents below Priority Mail, at least in my experience, rendering it somewhat pointless unless you're doing a large volume of USPS shipping.
posted by killdevil at 10:57 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


And as an aside, isn't it tomorrow that they're raising the price of a first-class stamp again?
posted by killdevil at 10:59 AM on January 26, 2013


I <3 USPS and want to smite tea party fucknuts who rant about privatizing it.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:01 AM on January 26, 2013 [37 favorites]


isn't it tomorrow that they're raising the price of a first-class stamp again?

Yes, along with other price hikes.
posted by Knappster at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2013


Knappster took something dull (mail) and made it interesting (by authoring this post). Nice work!
posted by scratch at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every time people back home complain about the USPS I want to smack them too. Because it took moving to another country where mailing anything anywhere is ridiculously expensive to realize that mailing things from the US is amazingly wonderfully cheap. (Overseas will cost you no matter where you go.) Also, US postal workers will pick up mail at your house and will deliver on Saturday.
posted by Kitteh at 11:13 AM on January 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Post Office Is Not an Other. The Post Office Is Us.
There is a reason why we used to build buildings the way we built the post office in Geneva, with its mural and its marble, and its great arching windows and its Doric entablature. It wasn't because we were profligate. It was because we considered self-government, for all its faults, to be something precious that belonged to all of us, and that it should be housed in places that looked as though we valued it enough to celebrate it and protect it at the same time. They were monuments we raised to ourselves, because we deserved them.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:15 AM on January 26, 2013 [22 favorites]


Yeah, the USPS is a truly majestic achievement. It is one of the great hallmarks of the best things the US has done in the last 200 or so years, one of the things we got right, and it's so backward and infuriating that people want to dismantle it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:20 AM on January 26, 2013 [22 favorites]


Our mail lady is.super nice. She leaves rubber bands in our mailbox because she knows my son likes them. Our UPS man is neither friendly nor unfriendly: he's just in too big of a hurry. I don't like our FedEx guy. If I don't come to the door within 30 seconds to sign for my package, he throws it back in the truck and takes off like a bat out Hell.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:25 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Every time people back home complain about the USPS I want to smack them too.

Exactly. If you think the USPS is slow and expensive, try moving to Canada.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 11:31 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm sure that someone can find detailed economic analysis to prove me right, but in a nutshell, I don't think that Amazon or Netflix or Ebay or Etsy or a billion other e-commerce sites would exist at their size and efficiency today if they didn't have access to (presumably below private market-rate) flat-rate national shipping.

These are the companies that are probably a good example of "you didn't build that (on your own)".
posted by rh at 11:35 AM on January 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


Just wanted to chime in as another person who appreciates the USPS. Like every large organization, it may have some flaws and inefficiencies, but all in all, the men and women who move the mail do a remarkably good job.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 11:40 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just for a contrary opinion, I would pay a monthly fee to have my mail delivered by not-the-Post-Office. At least not the one in my neighborhood (or any of the surrounding ones.) Between the straight-up lying about attempting to deliver packages, sending back packages to the shipper way before they're supposed to, regularly screwing up mail delivery, and being completely unresponsive to any sort of mail forwarding problems (whether on the phone or at the actual office) I've stopped getting anything at all delivered by the USPS. I mean, I totally understand that they are underfunded and understaffed, but holy shit I do not care. I'll take "slow and expensive" over "never actually getting to me because of institutional problems" any day.
posted by griphus at 11:40 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Let me rephrase that: I care a lot about the fact that an integral part of our nation's infrastructure doesn't function at anything resembling "efficiency" in my locale, but as I can't really do anything to improve the situation, I'd really prefer an option to actually get service.
posted by griphus at 11:42 AM on January 26, 2013


I'll enjoy delving into this post when I finish updating all the postal charges for our online business. Priority mail (and the free envelopes and boxes) have been a godsend for us but not when the rates go up :(
posted by jabo at 11:47 AM on January 26, 2013


Just for a contrary opinion, I would pay a monthly fee to have my mail delivered by not-the-Post-Office.

I knew before checking that you live in New York City. The NYC experience is not the typical experience people have with the USPS.
posted by killdevil at 11:55 AM on January 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


the straight-up lying about attempting to deliver packages, sending back packages to the shipper way before they're supposed to, regularly screwing up mail delivery, and being completely unresponsive to any sort of mail forwarding problems

UPS and FedEx are worse, in my opinion.

That said, I feel you on the embarrassing level of USPS service in most of Brooklyn. Though it's still preferable to FedEx, which has drivers that will actually steal your stuff and claim you signed for it.

It's a good thing New York City is the cultural capital of North America, because every other thing about it is just a little bit worse than anywhere else in the US.
posted by Sara C. at 11:55 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Outstanding post.

Nope, just standard.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:34 PM on January 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think USPS has been poorly-run and continues to be in many ways, but their modernization program is coming along very well considering their size and lack of quality employees, and they are front-runners in some areas such as accurate handwriting OCR.
posted by michaelh at 12:44 PM on January 26, 2013


Living in rural Alaska, the USPS is one of my favorite institutions. A flat rate box costs the same to get out here as it does to anywhere else, and parcel post from Anchorage is totally reasonable. It's how we get the majority of our food. Yay USPS!
posted by charmcityblues at 1:00 PM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love USPS! Just last night I read this great quote in The New Yorker 'Shouts & Murmurs' section (weekly humor column) called "Automatic Reply" by Colin Jost:
I will be checking my "snail mail" infrequently. "Snail mail" is a funny term I use to describe the U.S. Postal Service, because it delivers mail the way a snail would (reliably, in two to three days).
Funny, and it gets its point across. From now on, I'm going to avoid that phrase and just say USPS.
posted by funkiwan at 1:27 PM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Little known fact: The USPS used to have passbook savings accounts and during the Depression many people who had their money in private banks had all their savings wiped out, but many lucky working class and poorer folks were saved by the savings they'd put aside in their sturdy USPS savings accounts.

I'm not sure why the USPS ever got rid of that, other than the obvious hurf durf SOCIALISM (!!), reasons probably: The banks resenting the govt getting in on what they see as "their" money, regardless of who owns it.

I often wonder why they don't bring that back. I imagine it could do much to help with their budget woes, and could even be used as an infrastructure bank and provide cheap loans to individuals to start small businesses, Even high-quality unscammy credit cards. I would definitely get and account and stop dealing with all private banks altogether.

And I'd be lying if I also would simply enjoy watching the big banks, those paragons of integrity and sober levelheaded civic responsibility (not), have a collective cow.
posted by Skygazer at 1:28 PM on January 26, 2013 [10 favorites]


As good as the USPS is, it would be much better if Republicans in Congress stopped meddling in its affairs.
posted by Mick at 1:28 PM on January 26, 2013 [10 favorites]


The USPS is one of the best things about the US. Try taking an envelope across the country yourself for 48 cents. Awesome.
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


And I'd be lying if I also would simply enjoy watching the big banks, those paragons of integrity and sober levelheaded civic responsibility (not), have a collective cow.

But if any number of other countries are any indication, it would be eventually spun off and privatized, thus becoming one of the big banks. I believe Japan is an exception, in that it's a major bank and hasn't been spun off. Hell, if any number of countries are an indication, USPS is doomed to privatization. (Though isn't the post office constitutionally created? Is that a problem for the would-be privatizes?)
posted by hoyland at 1:39 PM on January 26, 2013


I was told about the impending price hike and renaming of Parcel Post this morning, by my charming and lovely local post office worker and I shrugged. Who cares, I love the USPS, I'll pay it!

Parcel Post, for the record, can be quite a bit cheaper than Priority, certainly for a range of weights between not real little and not real large. I use it frequently to ship (I mean, like 20 times a week or so) and it's pretty much perfect.

Speaking of pretty much perfect, weren't we talking about the USPS? Ah, yes! Visiting my local PO is most usually the best part of my day. Our small town worker in there, Steve, lets me get away with calling him Stevesies. We chat and if someone's behind me in line, I just step to the side and we keep on chattin'. We have private in jokes and we talk shit on each other and then laugh and get grateful for a bright spot in the middle of our hum-drum day. He knows my son well and even right now as I type this, right in front of me, is a picture of Stevesies at the last house show I hosted. I'd invited him and his wife over and over and they finally showed. I squealed like you wouldn't believe when I saw him walking down the street to the show because YAY! STEVESIES! Aside from the personal interaction (Did I mention I loved Steve? And that friendly lady at my PO is actually the mother of a girl I graduated with. We call her Bird and she's a delight.) I'm happy to point out to anyone, ANYONE, that talks of dismantling the USPS that I've shipped literally 10,000 packages in 5 years and the USPS has lost just one. They've taken huge items from me and gotten them safely to their new homes and all at such a low cost! You wanna talk about some goddamn glorious beautiful American efficiency? Let's talk about the USPS.

My local PO is sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting. I swear, it's what all Americans think America really is -- everyone knows your name, they're courteous, and they're good at what they do. My local PO might just be one of that last great things about this country. Truly, as crazy as it sounds, it makes me remember and love what we can accomplish as a nation when I walk in that joint.

God bless the USA and God bless the USPS!

(Also, I loooooooove this FPP. But not as much as I love Steve, of course.)
posted by youandiandaflame at 2:04 PM on January 26, 2013 [12 favorites]


The NYC experience is not the typical experience people have with the USPS.

Oh dear the Williamsburg post office is always like one primal scream away from a riot.
posted by The Whelk at 2:12 PM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The NYC USPS experience is often mirrored in rural areas. My sister has had griphus' experiences and more with the USPS and packages I sent her, she ordered, or items/mail she waited for after stopping/restarting coming back from business trips.

When my parents lived in rural NY, they had a postal carrier who ran a scam where he would regularly 'lose' or 'deliver' packages in name-brand boxes, whose contents would be sold off on eBay at a later date. Birthday and holiday cards had a habit of going missing as well. When he was pulled off that route after about a decade, his girlfriend, also a postal carrier, took it over. Numerous complaints, going back many, many years, did nothing.

When I worked in retail, many postal carriers, in uniform, mind you, would come in with various coupons. Bearing many different names.
posted by oflinkey at 2:22 PM on January 26, 2013


I'll take "slow and expensive" over "never actually getting to me because of institutional problems" any day.

For what it's worth, in my experience, Canada Post loses more stuff than the USPS. It certainly delays more stuff for weeks or months for no apparent reason.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:12 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Canada Post doesn't really charge 32 cents for a stamp. It's 2 cents for postage and 30 cents for storage."
-- Gerald Regan, Cabinet Minister, Financial Post 12/31/83
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:27 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Canada Post loses more stuff than the USPS. It certainly delays more stuff for weeks or months for no apparent reason.

Ages ago I worked for a tiny company that was developing RFID tags for tracking mail sent through Canada Post. The big special requirement was that they had to turn on and off due to being on planes at points in their journey. The Posties where quite open about how they had no idea where the mail was going and how it would sometimes go awry.

They also gave us an 80 page booklet detailing how to properly label envelopes.

I've used Canada Post, USPS and most of the postal systems in the EU and surrounding area. All are pretty good - Canada Post was the worst - sometimes mail travelling a few miles would take 11 days. Royal Mail in the UK was the best by far. Spain had a tendency to lose packages and Russia had a tendency to crush them. The postal service in the EU facilitates trade by removing most of the complication of shipping with flat rate prices at the national and EU levels. Brilliant system. I wish North America had it.
posted by srboisvert at 3:56 PM on January 26, 2013


The biggest losers: small-town stores that couldn't compete with the catalog companies;

Gone with the hogshead, cask, and demijohn,
Gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan
Gone with the tub and the pail and the tierce.

and the express companies that previously handled any packages weighing more than four pounds.

I got some salmon from Seattle last September.
And I expect a new rockin' chair.
I hope I get my raisins from Fresno.
The D.A.R. have sent a cannon for the courthouse square.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:45 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The NYC experience is not the typical experience people have with the USPS.

No, trust me, it's the Brooklyn experience that's the issue, not the NYC experience. The only problem I've ever had with the USPS was the 6-7 month period when my mailman was a terrifyingly hot Trinidadian dude. Signing for packages was really awkward. Hell, the word "package" itself was super awkward.
posted by elizardbits at 6:36 PM on January 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Royal Mail in the UK was the best by far.

So once I was an idiot and sent my grandad a letter from the US with the wrong Yorkshire and the wrong post code on it. (In my defense, he had until recently not even technically been in any Yorkshire. And his post code was a close variation on my friend's mother's license plate, so you can see how things could go wrong.) Got there in under a week. Granted, once it makes it to some part of Yorkshire, the rest of the way probably isn't that hard, post code or no.
posted by hoyland at 6:45 PM on January 26, 2013


I am generally a supporter of the USPS.

But when I walked into my local postal station the other day and was informed that they were "sold out" of stamps, I suddenly had a sense of what going postal might mean.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 8:11 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


You never walked into your local post office with your entire life boxed up to ship cross country, only to find out some server somewhere was down and they could do nothing, and no post office in Brooklyn could, either, and maybe Manhattan or Queens is up and running but they don't know.

Only to schlep all of it across the street to the Mailboxes Etc, where they were happy to ship all of it for you, via USPS, with no problems.

Brooklyn Post Offices can fucking die as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Sara C. at 10:46 PM on January 26, 2013


This thread has convinced me that I need to let my Congresscritters know how great I think USPS is. Maybe if they get enough letters like that they'll fund it properly and let it calculate its pensions sanely.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:53 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlie don't surf, I am enjoying your inthread extemporaneous lyrics shtick. Keep it up.
posted by mwhybark at 5:18 AM on January 27, 2013


Between the straight-up lying about attempting to deliver packages, sending back packages to the shipper way before they're supposed to, regularly screwing up mail delivery, and being completely unresponsive to any sort of mail forwarding problems (whether on the phone or at the actual office) I've stopped getting anything at all delivered by the USPS.

Around here, that's my standard experience with UPS. I'll watch it go from "Out for delivery" to "Delivery attempted" on the tracking, with no other indication at all as I sit at home waiting that a UPS driver has been within a mile of my place. I'll call and complain, the same thing will happen two or three times, and then eventually if I'm lucky the driver will just leave it on the sidewalk (he still won't actually ring the buzzer, of course). If I'm not lucky it'll start on its way back to the sender and I'll have to spend hours on the phone escalating to various levels of UPS customer service to get it turned back around again. Oh, and they'll try to get me to come pick it up from the UPS office which—unlike my post office which is a mile away—is fucking 20 miles out in the suburbs and completely inaccessible by public transit. I hate when I order something online and they only ship by UPS.
posted by enn at 6:14 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, in my experience, Canada Post loses more stuff than the USPS. It certainly delays more stuff for weeks or months for no apparent reason.

Oh my god, my family and friends in the UK just got their fucking Christmas gifts--sent from Canada Post--a little over a week ago and and I mailed them December 17th.

Canada Post can blow me. I support workers' unions completely, but sometimes it feels like getting a whole lot less for a whole lot more every time they go on strike.
posted by Kitteh at 7:28 AM on January 27, 2013


Charlie don't surf, I am enjoying your inthread extemporaneous lyrics shtick. Keep it up.

LOL. Perhaps you have noticed, my username is an inline lyric.

You have no idea how happy it makes me to be able to quote that "hogshead, cask, and demijohn" lyric in a relevant context on MeFi for the second time.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:54 AM on January 27, 2013


Deutschepost is also complete schise. Swiss seems to do a good job, mostly. A bit surly sometimes when requested to bring packages upstairs, preferring I run down to them. But at least they bring them. South Africa took the cake for fail though.
posted by Goofyy at 11:38 AM on January 27, 2013


Exactly. If you think the USPS is slow and expensive, try moving to Canada.

It's faster to mail things from Montreal to Texas than from Montreal to Quebec City (about a 2 hour drive).


Watching their tracking system is fun, too. I shipped something to Vancouver, and they do not update a single time between the day it leaves the city and the day it arrives on the other side of the country.
posted by jeather at 6:17 PM on January 27, 2013


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