Post Office Careers Background
The postal service touches the lives of virtually everyone in the nation. Letter and package carriers visit the homes and offices of millions of Americans, clerks and postmasters wait on customers at their local post offices, and thousands of postal employees work behind the scenes to process and deliver 212 billion pieces of mail each year. This service includes the delivery of letters, postcards, newspapers, catalogs, packages, and other communications.
Mail service has existed in this country since 1639, when a tavern owned by Richard Fairbanks in Boston was selected by the Massachusetts General Court as the first official repository for colonial mail brought to and from overseas. In time, mail service was authorized by other colonies, but dramatic improvements eventually were made by Benjamin Franklin, who was Deputy Postmaster General of the colonies under the British from 1753 to 1774. As the 13 original colonies joined to oppose British rule in 1775, the Continental Congress formed its own postal system and appointed Franklin the first Postmaster General of the united colonies. In 1789, the Post Office was continued when the U.S. Constitution was written, with Samuel Osgood as the first Postmaster General. It became an executive department in 1872.
As the country grew, mail service expanded dramatically. The number of post offices climbed from just 75 in 1789 to a peak of nearly 77,000 in 1901. In 1847, the year postage stamps were first authorized in the United States, the Post Office handled only about six pieces of mail per year for each person in the United States. Today, the Post Office delivers 202 billion pieces of mail per year.
Over the years, mail has been delivered using the most sophisticated means of transportation available. Railways were used to transport mail in the early 1830s. For a short time in the 1860s, relays of riders on horseback, called the Pony Express, delivered mail between Missouri and California. The automobile carried the mail as early as 1896, long before many Americans had seen the newfangled invention. And in May 1918, less than 15 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the world’s first powered flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Post Office Department had established regular airmail service between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Among the pioneer pilots who flew for the Post Office was Charles A. Lindbergh, famous for his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Other famous Americans who worked for the Postal Service over the years include presidents Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, who were both postmasters. Actor/singer Bing Crosby and football hero Knute Rockne were postal clerks. Other unsung heroes braved the elements to deliver the mail. One was Chester Noongwook, an Alaskan American, who delivered mail by dogsled for many years on the remote Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, 120 miles west of the Alaskan mainland. His route was 120 miles round trip. Noongwook’s Alaskan huskies eventually were replaced by airplane, but not until 1963. Another unsung hero was John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who delivered mail on snowshoes over the Sierra Nevada mountain range between Nevada and California in the mid-1800s.
As the volume of mail skyrocketed after World War II, the Post Office Department began searching for new ways to process and deliver mail more efficiently to offset growing postal deficits. In the 1950s, postal officials initiated research into mechanized and automated mail-processing machines. Mechanized postal equipment can cull, cancel, and sort mail at a reasonably rapid rate, but these machines are fairly labor intensive compared with automation. Mechanization was deployed in the late 1950s and is still used in post offices today. Automation uses more sophisticated, computer-driven machines operated by only a few people. Automated equipment was tested in the 1960s and 1970s, and was used regularly in post offices beginning in 1983.
One breakthrough in the efficiency of mail processing was the inauguration of the zip code (Zoning Improvement Plan) in 1963, an extension of the one- and two-digit zone numbers first used during World War II. Before the zip code, each envelope or package had to be read as many as 10 different times before final delivery. Each reading consumed valuable time. Use of the zip code eliminated many of the readings, reduced the chances of human error, and eventually formed the basis for the processing of mail using mechanized and automated equipment.
Zip codes are assigned to every address in the nation. The first digit represents a broad geographical area, ranging from zero for the northeast to nine for the West Coast. The second two digits pinpoint population centers and large postal facilities (called sectional centers) accessible to common transportation networks. The last two digits identify small post offices or zones in the larger cities.
With zip codes, mail is sent from the sectional center nearest the point of origin directly to the sectional center nearest its destination. From there it is dispatched to its ultimate delivery point.
In 1978, the Postal Service began developing plans for an expanded zip code. Implemented in 1983, this system, called zip + 4, adds four digits to the end of existing zip codes. Zip + 4 applies primarily to business mailers and works by providing the potential for automated sorting to each block of a street and to office buildings and companies receiving large volumes of mail. Today, zip codes can be as long as 11 digits, for example, 10026-4576-98. The first digit of the zip code still refers to a specific part of the country and the second two digits still identify the sectional center. As the addition of the four numbers originally specified the delivery area for businesses, these four digits identify the delivery sector in neighborhoods as well. Finally, the last two digits pinpoint the specific address on the route. Use of the add-on digits is not required of the average mailer, but it can expedite the sorting process.
Automated letter sorting hinges largely on two machines: the optical character reader (OCR) and bar code sorter (BCS). An OCR reads addresses at a rate of 40,000 envelopes per hour and sprays bar codes in the lower-right hand corner of envelopes. Subsequent sorts are performed by bar code sorters.
In 1988, the Postal Service set a goal that a bar code (a series of vertical lines similar to universal product codes) would be placed on virtually all letter mail by 1995. Today, digital imaging and optical character recognition sorting machines are used to handle this task. Much of the bulk mail that makes its way through the postal system already has a bar code, so that mail is routed directly to the machines that read the bar codes. Mail that doesn’t have a preprinted bar code but does have a typed or printed address is sent to a mail sorting machine that uses a camera to take a picture of the typed addresses so that the computer can interpret the image and cause the correct bar code to be printed on the mail.
In the future, the post office hopes to be using OCR equipment that can read handwritten addresses so that those letters without printed addresses can be read and bar coded the same way. For now, if the sorting machine cannot read the address because it is handwritten, a Silicon Graphics computer uses more sophisticated methods to devise the image. If successful, the bar code is placed on the mail, if not successful, the mail is sent to a postal worker who reads the address and types it into the system. The mail is sent back through the sorting machines so that the correct bar code can be applied. Larger sorting centers are using the approximately 875 OCR machines owned by the United States Postal Service (USPS), while thousands of sorting machines are used in post offices all over the country.
Congress occasionally discusses making the USPS a private enterprise. Discussions range from breaking up the four classes of mail to selling the entire enterprise to a private firm. However, the public’s resistance to private postal service has restricted any major change in the Post Office. The biggest segment of private post competition is in the overnight and package delivery business.
Two major competitors to the government Postal Service, Federal Express and United Parcel Service (UPS), developed systems for same-day, overnight, and two-day package and document delivery. Other, smaller companies also provide overnight and package delivery services to the United States and abroad.
The Postal Service also faces competition from electronic mail and faxing. However, it is not expected that alternative delivery systems and email will affect the volume of mail handled by the USPS. In fact, mail volume is expected to continue to increase, as population growth and partnerships with express delivery companies stimulate demand for mail delivery.
The Postal Service is responding to this competition with new technologies, such as electronic postmarks, online bill-paying, and online stamp purchasing and postage that can be downloaded from a personal computer and printed onto an envelope or mailing label.