The numbers don’t look good for the U.S. Postal Service. Last year it reported its sixth straight annual operating loss, in the amount of $2.7 billion. During fiscal year 2017, the USPS delivered 149 billion pieces of mail, down from 154 billion the previous year — and a major drop from its peak of 213 billion in 2006.
The average American is no longer using the mail to send greeting cards or newsy letters, family photos at Christmas or postcards from vacation. In fact, the average American couldn’t tell you the cost of a stamp. (It’s 50 cents, up a penny from the 2017 rate.)
So we are all to blame — Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps disproportionately — for the struggles of the postal service.
And yet, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It averted a 2009 proposal to cut back to five days of delivery a week and defied reports that it was going out of business.
In 2015 it appointed its first female postmaster general. In 2017 it launched Informed Delivery, a free service that provides a digital preview of the mail that will be landing in your mailbox later that day. And last month it issued a set of scratch-and-sniff stamps.
The postal service offers a remarkable value proposition. For just 50 cents, mail carriers will deliver your handcrafted message anywhere in the United States! The distance from Anchorage to Miami spans nearly 5,000 miles, breaking down to a hundredth of a penny per mile.
Compare that with the Pony Express pricing in 1860 — $10 an ounce — and, adjusting for inflation, you see a business that has drastically improved its service at ever lower prices.
Amid continued murmurs of doom and gloom, of a failing business model in a rewired communications landscape, I find it refreshing to consider the USPS’s history, beginning in 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The postal service is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution, and over the centuries it has innovated again and again.
In 1845 it hired the first woman to carry mail, ferrying it from the train depot to the post office in Charlestown, Maryland. By 1860 a woman worked a contract route, a “tall, muscular woman” the Boston Daily Globe dubbed “Brave Polly Martin.” In the winter, Martin said in an interview, she often had to dig her horse out of snow drifts, and once she was accosted by robbers. The man who grabbed her reins paid the price; she “pounded him in the face” with her horsewhip, she said. “He had tackled the wrong customer that time.”
The postal service pioneered airmail delivery, building an entire aviation infrastructure years before passenger airline service became profitable. Eddie Gardner, one of its first pilots, was nicknamed “Turkey Bird” because his wobbly takeoffs resembled a turkey trying to fly. In 1918, he tested a proposed route from New York to Chicago, breaking his nose in a rough landing and paving the way for a regular New York-Chicago airmail service that took effect the following year.
To appreciate the postal service’s history is to recognize how much it has weathered and how far it has come — and, as a byproduct, to believe in its future.
So too is it with the Catholic Church. Reports that we are losing members faster than any other denomination in the U.S. are troubling. But the oldest Christian faith offers a service like no other: food for the soul.
To reimagine our future, we must remember our past — beginning with an education for young Catholics, whose appreciation for history may surprise you.
Where we are headed depends on where we have been.
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