Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel and Donald McBain, Nat Geo Image Collection
Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel and Donald McBain, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why the postal service matters?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

In 1863, the postal office began experimenting with home delivery. In 2019, the United States Postal Service, which has a legal obligation to bring mail to every American household six days a week, delivered more than 142 billion pieces of mail.

Created to “bind together the scattered populous of the new United States,” NatGeo wrote earlier this year, the post office has helped shape American life. “The agency would drive the expansion of roads and transit, strengthen the nation’s connections with its rural communities, and brave all conditions to bring packages to citizens’ front doors.” (Above, the main New York Post Office in 1954).

“Not only has the U.S. Postal Service been a conduit for communications throughout the nation’s history, its workers have tapped into broad experiences gleaned on the job to gain a better understanding of America,” David Beard wrote for National Geographic. Many well-known Americans have worked for the post office (more on that later in the newsletter).

At its height, the postal service employed nearly 798,000 in 1999. In 2019, nearly 497,000 career workers were employed.

The post office has a history of adapting to fit the times. When Congress created the USPS in 1971 to replace the old post office department, the USPS was required to support itself. The arrival of email created a new dynamic for the post office, which has seen a 34 percent drop in its first class and marketing mail since 2007. It hasn’t recorded a profit since 2006. Still, the postal service is one of the country’s most beloved institutions. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March showed that 91 percent of people polled had a favorable view of the post office—the highest of any part of the federal government.

Now, the postal service is in crisis. Recent cuts, planned to improved the postal service’s efficiency, are having a devastating impact with reports last week of rotting food and dead animals. The cuts, the Los Angeles Times reports, are “snarling the operation of one of the largest mail-processing facilities in the country and delaying the delivery of prescriptions, rent payments, and unemployment checks. Some people have complained of going days without receiving any mail at all.”

There is concern about whether will be able to deliver ballots for the 2020 election to households. The service, which began mail-in voting in 1864, had warned last week that it may not be able to meet mail-in voting deadlines for 46 states. In the 2016 presidential election, nearly a quarter of those voting cast ballots by mail, and that number has been expected to rise sharply because of fears of contracting COVID-19 at in-person polls. In an effort to safeguard the ballot, the House of Representatives voted Saturday to give the Postal Service $25 billion to forestall mail-slowing changes until the pandemic passed.

In a 1954 National Geographic article, then-postmaster Arthur E. Summerfield put the importance of the Post Office this way: “It is ... the greatest as well as the most economical of all the social services in our modern society. No other agency of government is so close to the daily life of each community or so personal in its relations with our people."

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Today in a minute

California wildfires: Some of the oldest and tallest redwoods in the nation have been burned in the massive wildfires that have burned more than 1 million acres in California. To get a scale of the devastation, that’s four times the acreage that burned all of 2019 and its an area greater than Rhode Island. Two of the fires are the second and third largest in state history, spewing unhealthy air for hundreds of miles, the Associated Press reports. In America’s biggest state, the smoke and fire are now bigger fears that the COVID-19 pandemic, Cynthia Gorney reports.

A CDC switch: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has dropped its 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers returning to the United States or from areas high in COVID-19 infection. That said, the CDC says returning travelers should “follow state, territorial, tribal, and local recommendations or requirements”—including those mandated quarantines. The CDC continues to note that those exposed to the virus, which has killed a reported 800,000 people and infected 23.4 million people worldwide, pose a risk of infecting others for 14 days.

At the century mark: The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage is Thursday, which is known as Women's Equality Day. Yet, as Rachel Hartigan writes, the key sticking point in the drive for equality is political empowerment—the lack of women serving in public office. Only 26 out of 100 U.S. Senators are women—and that’s the highest proportion of women senators in history. Only 101 of the House’s 435 voting members are women. All that despite 10 million more women voting than men in the 2016 presidential election. “I am surprised we are not further along,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

How did whites codify voter suppression? 130 years ago this month in Mississippi, a convention of white men came up with a way to get around a U.S. Constitutional amendments that aimed to protect the right of all (male) citizens the right to vote. The white Mississippians instituted poll taxes and literacy tests designed specifically to shut out Black voters to whom they denied the education and economic opportunities needed to clear these hurdles. These Jim Crow laws expanded and proliferated—and their stain remains today, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever writes.

Instagram photo of the day

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Locusts: The skies darken. The locusts fill it. In a displaced persons camp in Somaliland, photographer Nichole Sobecki captured a woman watching the swarm. Erratic climate conditions that cause severe droughts across the Horn of Africa in some years yield extreme rainfall in others. That rainfall triggered, in 2019, the worst outbreak of desert locusts the region had seen in decades.

Related: Climate extremes force women farmers off the land

On Thursday: The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will be displaying key images on our Instagram page all day long. Follow us now to see (if you are not one of our 143 million followers already).

The big takeaway

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The original Lincoln Project? Maybe it was delivering the mail. Among the U.S. postal workers who later became famous was a gangly 24-year-old postmaster from New Salem, Illinois. If a person couldn’t make the trip into the office, Abraham Lincoln would carry the letter to them, often placing it in his hat to protect it from the elements, Nat Geo’s David Beard reports. Other famous postal workers include Walt Disney, writers Richard Wright and William Faulkner, singers Brittany Howard and John Prine, and Olympic swimmer Shirley Babashoff (below, delivering the mail and accepting a gold medal). Here are more famous postal workers.

From the archives: Postal service helps make America great, says former postmaster

In a few words

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Last glimpse

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An affair of honor, or murder? Americans these days know duels as some misguided bygone tradition in which Alexander Hamilton (and earlier, his son) were killed. Although technically outlawed, duels broke out for centuries in Europe, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. And in no country was it more prevalent than France, where it was romanticized in works such as The Three Musketeers. France’s last known duel took place in 1967. It was televised. Above, a detail from a 17th century painting of a duel, carried out while market vendors go about their business, on the Pont Neuf in Paris.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Kimberly Pecoraro has helped produce this. Have an idea, a link, a challenge to a duel? (Note: a joke.) Anyway, we'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and happy trails.