Post Office Update #1

In a post a few weeks ago, I half-promised that I might write more frequent updates about my current research project. Inspired by John Fea’s updates on his book on the American Bible Society (out next month)—though with no illusions that I could post something every day as he does— I’d like to try to write at least occasional updates about the progress of the book, research tidbits, and whatever else strikes me as I’m working.

So consider this an introduction. Having worked for quite a long time on the history of communications and politics during the American Revolution, I’ve shifted my gaze just a bit to a book project that seeks to craft a narrative of the post office in America from its origins in seventeenth-century post riders to the debates over privatization and pension funding going on as we speak. That’s a massive undertaking, of course, and all the more so because the expected manuscript is relatively short, just 85,000 words. For that reason, I’m trying to be very careful not to try to write “a” history of the post office rather than “the” history of the post office (if I may borrow from David Hall’s introduction to the series entitled A History of the Book in America).

That is, rather than try to examine every aspect of the Post Office, I’m focusing in on one question that has struck me as fundamental for explaining the difficulties the postal system has faced over the last 250 years. It’s a problem that goes to the core of what the function of the Post Office is: in part it has been a civic institution and government entity, and in part it has been a revenue-generating business. In both respects that makes it odd; most government institutions don’t generate much revenue, and most businesses aren’t owned by the government or seen to have civic-minded function. The question of how to balance those competing impulses (which I’ve elsewhere labeled a paradox) has vexed the Post Office since the seventeenth century, and seems ripe for examination during an era when the nature of government more generally has come into question.

I’ve been at work on the project already for a while, but am working on it now in earnest with a looming (but safely unstated) deadline. There are a few things I want to discuss already, including a few juicy archival finds and aspects of moving out of the time period for which I was trained to do research, so if all goes well the updates will be fully in motion very shortly.

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