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Serious Cartooning: Parcel Post

Jul 21, 2014

We continue our series on the intricate and interesting cartoons within the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. There are currently over 2,500 cartoons available, many of which were originally published in Puck magazine. These are often very detailed, featuring current events or cultural mores of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In this blog series, staff from the Theodore Roosevelt Center decipher the meaning behind some of these cartoons.

Opening of the Parcels Post Tunnel cartoon

The opening of the parcels post tunnel, January 1, 1913. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

 

This cartoon celebrates the beginning of parcel post service in the United States. Parcel post is the sending of packages through the mail. Before the United States Post Office Department instituted a parcel post, this service was handled by private companies, known as express companies. By law the postal service couldn’t deliver parcels, even though mail wagons and vehicles had proven perfectly capable of delivering letters, newspapers, and advertisements to every corner of the country. The express companies charged prohibitively expensive rates, and they had considerable political clout and sought to protect their industry from government competition. This explains why the express companies are represented in the cartoon by Mount Middleman, which is blocking the producer, the small building on the left, from the consumer, the cityscape on the right.

The demand for a national parcel post greatly increased after the introduction of rural free delivery in 1902. Rural communities and farmers, which were over 50% of the population at the time, were suddenly much more integrated into the country and all it had to offer, such as the vast array of goods available through mail order catalogs. There was increased demand for commodities, but rural residents still had to depend, and pay, for delivery through express companies.

As rural demand increased, public opinion turned against the express companies, especially when their political maneuvering was revealed by the press and a large express company paid a dividend to stockholders at the height of public debate. The express companies were finally doomed by a 1912 report from the Interstate Commerce Commission that revealed the industry was using a complicated rate structure to overcharge, sending goods on indirect routes to inflate prices, and discriminating against customers.

Parcel post legislation was added to the postal appropriations bill and signed by President Taft on August 24, 1912. When it took effect on January 1, 1913, the same day the cartoon was published in Puck magazine, parcel post was an instant success. During the first five days of January, 4 million packages were sent through the nation’s post offices. The economy received a large boost as customers found access to the national marketplace and mail order companies expanded to meet demand. In 1913, Sears, Roebuck and Company handled five times more orders than in 1912.

The advent of parcel post also had some unintended and perhaps unfortunate consequences. The affordability of the parcel post was a blessing to young adults, who found it easier to ship their laundry back home rather than cleaning it themselves. Specialized laundry boxes with reversible address cards and a sturdy construction were sold that catered to these fortunate youths, and less fortunate mothers.

In 1914 the weight limit for packages was fifty pounds, which allowed inventive, some might say abusive, parents to transport their children without paying train fare. May Pierstorff was mailed from Grangeville to Lewiston, Idaho, in February 1914 for $0.53. She safely traveled seventy miles in a train mail compartment and was delivered by a mail clerk to her grandmother’s house.

W. H. Coltharp also used the parcel post in an unusual manner. Tasked with building a bank in Vernal, Utah, Coltharp shipped fifty-pound packages of bricks through the postal service. Forty tons of bricks were delivered to Vernal, and Coltharp avoided freight charges that would have cost four times more. New regulations and amended legislation quickly put an end to the mailing of children and buildings.

Sources:

Heidelbaugh, Lynn. “Laundry Box.” National Postal Museum. Smithsonian Institution, September 2007. Web. July 17, 2014.

“Parcel Post.” The History of the United States Postal Service. United States Postal Service, n.d. Web. July 17, 2014.

“Parcel Post: Delivery of Dreams.” Smithsonian Libraries. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. July 17, 2014.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Jul 21, 2014 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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