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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Old Fight Has New Meaning

It was exactly a century ago that the American people finally won the long and forgotten Battle for the Parcel Post. Only in the United States were people forced to use private companies to send most packages. Luxembourg and Egypt and San Salvador had parcel posting, but we didn’t.

For many years, the Post Office Department had an 11-pound weight limit, and by law was required to charge uncompetitive rates for small domestic packages. A century ago, it actually cost Long Islanders using the U.S. Post Office less to mail a 10-pound package to China than to New Jersey. For anything above 11 pounds, you had to use one of the private “express” companies. There was little profit in rural service, so if you lived too far out, you paid a whole lot, and probably had to wait a long time. The Wells Fargo wagon brought the band instruments to 1912 River City because that was the only choice.

The Suffragettes, labor unions and other social movements were in a broad coalition with small businesses and farmers urging Congress to pass the Parcel Post bill (mailing one pamphlet at a time was far more expensive than sending a whole box of pamphlets to a local office for distribution). Long Island farm families saw direct sales of eggs, seeds, potatoes and a hundred other products to customers around the country as their best hope of survival.

The parcel post fight opened the eyes of many Americans to how things worked in Gilded Age Washington. At Congressional hearings, leaders of industries and organizations would testify in favor of the parcel post authorization bill, without opposition testimony. Letters and cards in support flooded in. Nothing would happen. The express industry could protect its interests without showing up to any hearing. In the end, public indignation over high dividends and excess profits for the express companies gave Congress the political cover to finally authorize parcel post service, effective Jan. 1, 1913. Even its wildest supporters didn’t foresee its immense, immediate popularity, or its atomic effect on the American economy.

In the first five days, four million parcels were mailed. Within a month, all the talk had turned to removing remaining limits and pricing disincentives to posting parcels. Entire industries that we take for granted burst into being because of parcel post, including the mail order business and the packaging industry as we know them. The Sears company tripled its revenues within five years. Along the Hudson River, vast beds of violets and other flowers had never been utilized until parcel post because the express company service to rural areas and villages was nonexistent or expensive. Suddenly, there were regional and national floral delivery businesses.

Postal expansion gave Americans one of the great investment payoffs in our history.

And now some of the same private interests from a century ago are back, guns blazing. This time, they want First Class and railroad mail, too. They’re positioned to get it. There are plenty of ideologues, extremists and partisans in Congress just festering to dismantle every public program that proves them wrong.    

With only a handful of exceptions (such as Bangladesh), you can’t mail a letter anywhere else for 46 cents. Overall Postal Service revenues are steady. It’s the unprecedented 2006 Congressional mandate that 75 years of retirement benefits be prefunded by 2016 that has pushed USPS into the red. Congress prohibits postal banking, digital posting and other lucrative, relevant options for post office retailing. We are offered only cutbacks, closings, layoffs and rate increases as options.

We are being trained to think of ourselves as corporate customers and not citizens.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net