Local Postmaster on American frontier: What kind of gig was it?
October 24, 2013 11:55 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn more about the job of Postmaster in small, rural settlements in 1830s and 1840s America. So, I have some questions ...

Were these jobs sought after, or merely handed out to whomever would take it? Did they come with any particular 'perks'? Did snagging one necessarily signal political connections of some sort? Is it a safe assumption that the Postmaster was also likely a central repository of information about everyone - factual or otherwise - in the area? What was the pay?

Bonus points for reference sources that provide further background.
posted by John Borrowman to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Some bits from the history of the USPS on wikipedia suggest that it was something a plum position:

The Post Office in the 19th century was a major source of federal patronage. Local postmasterships were rewards for local politicians—often the editors of party newspapers. About 3/4 of all federal civilian employees worked for the Post Office. In 1816 it employed 3341 men, and in 1841, 14,290. The volume of mail expanded much faster than the population, as it carried annually 100 letters and 200 newspapers per 1000 white population in 1790, and 2900 letters and 2700 newspapers per thousand in 1840.[18]

The Post Office Department was enlarged during the tenure of President Andrew Jackson. As the Post Office expanded, difficulties were experienced due to a lack of employees and transportation. The Post Office's employees at that time were still subject to the so-called "spoils" system, where faithful political supporters of the executive branch were appointed to positions in the post office and other government corporations as a reward for their patronage. These appointees rarely had prior experience in postal service and mail delivery.

posted by jquinby at 12:04 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

This page has links of lots of primary source material on the U.S. postal service.
posted by Area Man at 12:08 PM on October 24, 2013

Best answer: This is a little later than you are looking for, but you can see from this Postmaster General report (from the Confederate US, even!) in the 1860s what a lot of the day to day expenses and operations were like. The postal routes were up for bid (p 10) and they often contracted the longer hauls in between with local rail companies (p 11). The postmasters themselves are appointed (p 11) and contracts were made with local vendors for stuff and those contracts could be revoked for embarrassment or negligence (p 12, p 15). Page 15 shows the different types of post offices.

Here's another Postmaster General report from the 1870s. The word "rural" doesn't appear in it but my guess is this is more because the concept of "urban" wasn't quite the contrast that it is now. They didn't have self-adhesive stamps and the US and the UK were still yammering about whether they should share some sort of postage stamp because people were mailing back and forth a lot.

Here's a document from 1843 that is the Laws and regulations for the government of the Post Office Department it's pretty snore-inducing but you can see what the laws were including what postmasters were paid, death penalty for robbing the mail, etc. At this time New Orleans was considered a "frontier" post office. Here's a list of post offices in the US in 1828. My town, which had been incorporated for nearly fifty years by that time, still had to get our mail from the county seat. Here's one from 1851. At this point my town had a post office. Big change in just a few decades.

There are a lot of primary source documents you can find in Open Library if you dig around a bit. Those were just the ones I turned up looking for "postmaster"
posted by jessamyn at 12:20 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

You'll find tons of good background for this question in The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America by David Henkin.
posted by third rail at 1:55 PM on October 24, 2013

A couple of decades later than your time period, and based in England, but perhaps check out Lark Rise to Candleford.

A postmaster's daughter inherits his business on his death.

It's compelling historical drama from start to finish.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:00 PM on October 24, 2013

There's a good bit on the first few postmasters of my city in a 19th century history of the county. It really reads like one of those heavy-on-the-genealogy books of the Bible at times.
posted by dhartung at 3:32 AM on October 25, 2013

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