Private Mail Delivery in the United States during the Nineteenth Century: A Sketch

John, Richard R.

The post office is an anomaly for business historians. The delivery of mail is a potentially lucrative business that could, at least in theory, be undertaken by private enterprise. Yet historically private postal systems have been not the rule but the exception, and in every major industrial nation today mail delivery is undertaken by a monopoly that is run either directly by the government or, as in the United States, by a quasi-governmental public corporation. Given this state of affairs, one might assume that the recent efforts of private entrepreneurs to break into the mail delivery business are novel departures from time-honored norms. Yet this is only partly true. For while the government has successfully monopolized the mail delivery business in the twentieth century, in the nineteenth century a very different situation prevailed. In this period, private mail delivery firms operated profitably in virtually every major market the government served—and in many additional markets as well. And between 1839 and 1845—the heyday of the private mail delivery boom—private mail delivery firms flourished as they never had before and never would again. This neglected chapter in American communications history—the most serious private-sector challenge the U.S. post office has faced in its two hundred year history—is the subject of this essay.

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Business and Economic History

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August 1, 2018