A letter or package leaves the sender as a single item and is delivered the same way. From the time it reaches a post office until it is delivered, however, it becomes one of billions of items that are mass processed in almost assembly-line fashion. In the late 1980s, for example, the United States Postal Service processed nearly 150 billion items annually.
Mail Types and Classes
In the earliest years of postal service in the United States, only letters, newspapers, and small packets were considered mail. Magazines were accepted in 1799. By 1845 most printed matter was regarded as mail. Bound books, limited to a weight of 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), were accepted by post offices beginning in 1851. In 1861 such items as maps, engravings, photographic paper and prints, cards, and plant seeds and cuttings were accepted, with the same weight limit. To bring order to the increasingly diverse kinds of mail, three classes were established in 1863 and a fourth in 1879.
First-class mail includes sealed letters and any other pieces of sealed mail that are sent at the same postage rate as letters. Postcards, though they cost less to send, are also considered first-class mail. The first postcards were produced by the Austrian government in 1869. So successful were they that Great Britain introduced them in 1870. Postcard service in the United States was inaugurated in 1898.
Rates increase with the weight of an item, the lowest weight being an ounce for domestic letters. In the early period the rates varied not only with weight but with the distance the mail was to travel. In 1863 a uniform rate regardless of distance was established for light pieces. Heavier pieces are still charged by both weight and distance. There are additional fees for mail sent overseas.
Congress gave the post office system a monopoly for carrying first-class mail, but this monopoly did not apply to other classes. It has therefore been possible for private corporations to compete in delivery of other kinds of mail, particularly packages (see Express).
Heavy pieces of first-class mail that exceed 12 ounces (340 grams) may be sent as priority mail, which receives special handling at rates that vary according to distance and weight. Express Mail, which was introduced in the United States in 1977 to compete with the private express services, guarantees delivery the next day and therefore costs even more. All first-class mail is sent by air when feasible.
There was no designated second-class mail before 1863, though newspapers, magazines, other periodicals, and various printed matter were charged lower rates. With the establishment of three classes of mail, periodicals came under second-class rates that were somewhat less expensive than first class. In 1918 a distance factor was introduced in levying rates for second-class mail.
Beginning in 1863 advertisements, circulars, and other printed matter were no longer charged the same rates as magazines and newspapers. In that year such material was put into third class at lower rates. In 1928 a bulk rate of postage was made applicable to separately addressed identical pieces of third-class mail. The sender, however, was required to separate the mailing into bundles by destination. Today the third-class designation is used for printed matter (including books and catalogs), merchandise, plant cuttings and seedlings, and other mailable matter that weighs less than 16 ounces (454 grams).
Fourth-class mail was established in 1879 with a flat rate of one cent per ounce. Today the class includes mail weighing 16 ounces or more, and rates vary according to distance and weight. The Parcel Post Act of 1912 enlarged the scope of fourth class and ended a four-pound weight limit on packages. Weight limits have been raised substantially since the act went into effect partly because of competition from private express companies.
In addition to the four classes of mail, post offices offer some special services. The additional services vary from country to country. In the United States they include registered mail, certified mail, return receipts, COD mail, insured mail, special delivery, and special handling. Registered mail is a way of insuring valuable items for a specific amount; the sender is given a receipt, and the movement of the mailed item is carefully controlled through the postal system. Certified mail provides the sender with a receipt proving that the mail was delivered. Return receipts, showing to whom a piece of mail was delivered and when it was received, are available for a fixed fee.
The person who receives COD (collect on delivery) mail pays for it. This service is used by merchandisers who do not want to extend credit or by buyers who want to be sure of what they are receiving. Insured mail, like registered mail, provides coverage against loss or damage. Special delivery guarantees rapid delivery of first-class mail for an extra fee; the speed of delivery is not as fast as by Express Mail, nor is the cost as much. Special handling is a service for quicker delivery, for an additional fee, of third- and fourth-class mail. To provide a safe way to transmit money, post offices also sell money orders that can be cashed at the post office on the receiving end.
In some nations welfare benefits are paid through post offices. Some post offices collect certain taxes, usually through the sale of such things as dog licenses, hunting licenses, and tax stamps. Antimalaria drugs are distributed through post offices in some African and Asian countries. In Britain post offices have long functioned as savings institutions, providing some services offered by banks.
Flow of Mail
Mail is brought to a post office by individuals, institutions, or post office employees. Once at the post office a piece of mail begins a journey through a highly organized system. Letters and small packages normally arrive at a post office in sacks. There the letters must be separated from larger-size mail. All first-class mail gets faster handling than second- , third- , and fourth-class mail.
Mechanical aids make it possible for clerks to process a heavy volume every day. Larger post offices are equipped with rigid containers, bins on wheels, conveyor belts, forklifts, cranes, and other machinery to facilitate the handling of large quantities of mail. There are also segregating machines to separate a mixture of mail into different types, though in many places this work is still done by hand.
Some first-class mail is precancelled. If not, it must go through a facer-canceler machine. Such a machine can process tens of thousands of letters an hour. Facing is the process of aligning letters so that the address side is facing the canceler, with the stamps in the same corner. The machine prints wavy black lines over the stamp, canceling it so that it cannot be used again. Alongside the stamp is printed a circle containing the date, place, and time of stamping. The circle and wavy lines constitute the letter's postmark. A later development to speed mail is a system of area mail-processing facilities. Letters are taken to a central point, usually a large warehouse-type building, for canceling.
After postmarking is completed, the letters are ready to be sorted according to destination. Clerks may sort by hand, using racks of pigeonholes, called distribution cases. In some post offices they operate a keytronic letter sorter, which does much of the work mechanically. The machine brings each letter on a conveyor to the clerk. The address is read, and the operator presses certain keys to send the letter to one of several hundred bins. Each bin holds mail for a different location or route.
In many countries the sorting of mail is made easier by the use of postal zone coding. In Britain and Canada the coding system is a combination of numbers and letters, while in Germany the code consists only of numbers. The United States introduced ZIP (Zone Improvement Plan) codes in 1963. Users of the mail service are asked to put a five-digit number at the end of the address. The first three digits identify the section of the country to which the piece of mail is being sent, while the last two identify the specific post office or zone at the destination. The purpose of ZIP codes is to make it possible to use electronic reading and sorting equipment.
In the 1980s the United States Postal Service introduced a voluntary nine-digit ZIP code. Four additional digits were added to the original ZIP code after a hyphen to speed automated sorting operations. Of the four additional numbers, the first two indicate a specific sector of a city or town such as a cluster of streets or large buildings. The second two numbers represent an even smaller place segment one side of a city block, one floor of a large building, or a group of post office boxes.
After first-class mail is sorted, it is tied in bundles and put into pouches sturdy sacks made of canvas or lightweight nylon. Letters for a heavy-mail area, such as a large city, are put into a pouch labeled for the area. Small towns and rural areas do not get enough mail to require separate pouches. Their bundles are put together in pouches marked for a sectional center, a post office that serves as a transmission point for other offices nearby.
Mail goes back to the sender when it cannot be delivered because the addressee is unknown or the address is incomplete or unreadable. If there is no return address on the envelope, the letter is put into a dead-mail office. There it is opened to see if the contents contain a clue to the sender or the addressee. This is the only time a postal employee is allowed to open a sealed letter.
Most of today's mail originates in businesses and other institutions. To help speed delivery, businesses cooperate with the post office in many ways. Newspapers, mail-order houses, magazines, and other large mailers have their own mail rooms. Their employees sort, bundle, and sack letters, catalogs, packages, and other materials just as postal employees do. Very little post office handling, apart from transportation, may be needed until the last stages of delivery.
Postage meters make postmarking unnecessary. Business firms use these machines to print the postage payment and postmark directly on envelopes or onto paper tape that can be pasted on packages. The firm prepays the postage, and the post office sets the meter for the amount that can be used before the postage meter must be brought back to the post office for additional prepayment.
The final step in the flow of mail is delivery to the addressee. Delivery to most homes and small businesses is done by a postal employee on foot. In rural areas the letter carrier drives a car or small truck to make deliveries. Homeowners on rural routes place their mailboxes along the road so the letter carrier can put letters in them without leaving the vehicle. A raised flag on the box means that inside there is a letter to be picked up by the letter carrier for delivery somewhere else.
Large packages (parcel-post mail) are delivered by truck. When mail is sent special delivery or express mail, a special messenger delivers it. Some mail must be signed for by the receiver. Business firms in cities usually pick up their mail from the post-office branch nearest them instead of requiring delivery.
For nearly 4,000 years mail was delivered by messengers on foot, on horseback, or in horse-drawn carriages. Some mail was probably carried in ships for short distances. Significant improvements in transportation began in the early 19th century with the development of the steamship and the railroad. The airplane was added early in the 20th century. Within short distances mail is carried by truck.
Mail by sea. The first regular government packet service was established in Britain in the first half of the 17th century. (A packet is a small passenger ship that carries mail and cargo.) The service was between Holyhead, Wales, and Dublin, Ireland. In 1633 Thomas Witherings set up regular communication between Dover, England, and Calais, France. The post office as a government monopoly was established in 1635 with Witherings as postmaster general for foreign mail. In 1666 a packet service was established between Harwich and the Netherlands. This was followed in 1690 by service from Falmouth to La Coruna, Spain, and in 1703 from Falmouth to Lisbon, Portugal.
The increased number of British overseas possessions in the 18th century necessitated new routes. Regular packet service to the West Indies began in 1702, and within a few years packets were going back and forth between Britain and North America. By the end of the 18th century, Britain had mail service to most parts of the world by sea. Much of the service was actually done by private owners of sailing ships instead of by government packets.
It was soon evident that it was less expensive for governments to hire private shipping companies to carry their mail than it was to build more packets. Thus in 1839 the practice of contracting with private carriers began with a 55,000-pound subsidy to Samuel Cunard (see Cunard). The practice amounted to subsidizing private shipping lines from taxes. As steamship companies grew and prospered, the subsidy principle as it applied to them died out. But it was replaced soon with subsidies to railroads and, in the 20th century, to airlines.
Rail service. Mail was carried on passenger trains in Britain beginning in 1830. The railroads had a marked impact on the organization of postal work. Instead of just using the trains to carry mail, governments quickly introduced the practice of sorting letters in specially adapted mail cars. The first of these railway post offices was put into service between Liverpool and Birmingham in 1838 after passage of the first Conveyance of Mails Act. Later that year another rail post office began traveling between London and Preston. The movement of mail by train was much faster than carrying it by horse-drawn carriage over post roads. After 1846 horse-drawn coaches out of London were no longer in use.
In the United States, with its much greater distances, the movement of mail by horse lasted much longer (see Express). The famous Pony Express, for example, did not appear until 1860 and was displaced the following year by the telegraph. The first American railway post office did not appear until 1864. The transcontinental railroad was not completed until four years after the Civil War ended. Railroads did not run to most places, so the horse and wagon (stagecoaches of the Old West) remained in use until the automobile was invented late in the 19th century.
Airmail service. Britain began an airmail service in 1911. To help celebrate the coronation of George V, airmail was flown between Hendon and Windsor. Service remained irregular until after World War I, when significant improvements in the airplane made scheduled airmail service possible. An experimental service was set up to fly between Folkestone and Cologne, Germany, after the war. Regular service between London and Paris began in late 1919. Ten years later an England-India airmail service was started.
The Post Office Department of the United States established airmail service on May 15, 1918, in cooperation with the War Department. The first mail was flown from Washington, D.C., to New York City. On May 15, 1919, the first airmail was flown between Chicago and Cleveland. The first transcontinental night airmail flight started from San Francisco on Feb. 22, 1921. The plane landed at Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, N.Y., more than 33 hours later. By 1924 a regular transcontinental service was in operation. The Post Office Department soon stopped using military aircraft and pilots and turned over the mail service to private contractors, as had been done with steamship lines and railways in the 1800s.
The first American international airmail service began on Oct. 15, 1920, with a route between Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, B.C. Transpacific airmail service began in 1935 between San Francisco and the Philippines, with stops at Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam. The route was extended to Hong Kong on April 21, 1937, and to Singapore on May 3, 1941 just months before the entry of the United States into World War II ended regular airmail service for several years. The transatlantic route was inaugurated on May 20, 1939, from New York City to Marseilles, France, via Bermuda and Portugal. Service to London by way of Canada started on June 24, 1941, but was soon halted by the war. Air parcel-post service started in 1948 between the United States and Europe, South America, and the North Atlantic and Pacific areas.
Helicopter service to ferry mail to and from airports within large urban areas was tested in Los Angeles in July 1946, in Chicago in October 1946, and in New York City in February 1947. Shuttle services for the Los Angeles area began on Oct. 1, 1947, and similar services have been launched in other cities.
During the 1930s Britain began its so-called "all-up" system, whereby first-class mail was sent by air at normal postage rates whenever convenient. The Universal Postal Union adopted this policy of maximized use of airplanes for carrying mail in the mid-1960s. A decade later the concept of SAL (surface air-lifted) mail was adopted in conjunction with the International Air Transport Association and is now in general use throughout the world.
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