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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Going Postal- The Birth and Death of the American Letter Mail Company

     In the modern world we are very used to ordering something online and having someone from FedEx, UPS, DHL, or the United States Postal Service delivering it to our door. The competition between carriers has largely benefited the consumer, as it helps to keep prices moderately low. However, there was a time in the history of the United States when there was only one delivery service, and the United States Post Office was terribly expensive. One man decided he could do it better and cheaper. His name was Lysander Spooner.


Lysander Spooner in his later, and more radical years. He turned to individual anarchism following the Civil War.


     Today if we want to mail a letter via the post office, we buy a forever stamp for one ounce of mail. However from the dawn of the post office until the 1840's, there was no real standardized rate. You were charged based on the size of the letter, where it was sent from, as well as its destination. If it had to go on a boat, extra fees were often applied as well. All in all, it was very expensive to send mail and that bothered Spooner. He looked at the system and felt that the post office was gouging the public so he formed his own business, the American Letter Mail Company in 1844. Spooner opened major offices in large eastern cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He also created his own stamps and the postage was based on the weight of the letter. Anywhere the American Letter Mail Company could reach, you could get a letter there for roughly 6 centers per half ounce or you could buy 20 stamps for a dollar (reducing the cost to 5 cents per half ounce). A customer would affix the stamp and drop it off at a local affiliate where it would be sorted into bags. Employees would take these bags via ships or trains to the next office, and so on, until it reached the last stop where final delivery was conducted by couriers. If you were sending the mail locally, the delivery was free in some areas. Spooner's company was operating at a very modest profit, and doing so charging substantially less than the post office demanded to mail a letter. The post office noticed the competition almost immediately, deemed the business a criminal act, and promptly arrested and fined some of his employees ( fines were $1,300 to $2,600 in today's money) .
  
     Ironically, this is what Spooner expected the government would do. He was already known to be somewhat of an agitator, having campaigned against burdensome government in the past. Earlier in the 1830's he had somewhat successfully challenged the Massachusetts laws governing the process to become a lawyer, arguing it discriminated against the poor who wished to practice law. He actually operated as a lawyer outside this process in defiance of the law for several years. So when postal agents acted against his enterprise he took his crusade against monopoly through the court system. Then, as now, that process can be long and expensive. Spooner was able to successfully hold off the post office for seven years until he exhausted his financial resources and was forced to shut down the American Letter Mail Company in 1851. However, the venture a partial victory because in 1847, in reaction to his company, the post office released its first standardized stamp priced at 3 cents per half ounce. Because of the American Letter Mail Company, the price to send mail was drastically reduced. And although the monopoly he loathed remained for many years, the rates were never so high again. It was people like Spooner and his company that would later inspire the creation of private entities like Federal Express and UPS in an era when the post office was not so afraid of the competition.

   
The design of the ALMC stamp

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