Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: How the Post Office Created America

How the Post Office Created America: A History
Winifred Gallagher

This is a book that wears its heart on its sleeve. Winifred Gallager admires the Post Office. She wants you and me and everyone else to admire it, too.

And there's much to admire! Until the Civil War, the local post office was virtually the only direct contact most Americans had with their federal government. As such, it played a considerable part in making it possible to keep the nation together at all. Not only that, the deliberate decision to offer incredibly low shipping rates on newspapers led to an explosion of publishing and the growth of an informed electorate. Not only only that, but the P.O. was responsible for a whole series of innovations in what we now call communications technology.

Great stuff, right? Except that it wasn't all great. Gallagher glides a little bit too lightly over the non-great parts. There was the part where the Post Office was actually censored, forbidding it from carrying anti-slavery mails, for example. The spate of violence that gave us the phrase "going postal" isn't part of How the Post Office Created America. The occasional use of the department as a patronage piggy bank receives but a passing mention.

(There are also some research malfunctions. The absolute best is when Gallagher describes Terry Pratchett's Going Postal--a novel which includes, among other things, a golem postman; a sorting machine that produces letters that haven't been written yet; explosive cough drops; a young man who was raised by peas; cabbage-flavored stamps; and Anoia, Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers--as "noir". To be fair, a good bit of How the Post Office Created America directly reflects bits of the novel, thus validating Pratchett's claim that he never really had to invent anything.)

Gallagher does do a good job of limning the central philosophical question around the post. Is it a business, to be run with an eye towards profit and loss? Or is it a service, meant to provide value to every citizen? It's not an abstract question: FedEx and UPS, for example, would go broke if they had to provide one-cost shipping that covered both profitable urban areas and money-hemorrhaging rural ones. There are respectable historical and present-day arguments for both views. How we answer determines what the venerable P.O. will become in the 21st century.

Going Postal is a great book, even though it isn't actually noir. More on-topic, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought is a terrific history of the early Republic, when a lot of the drama around the Post Office played out.

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