September 23, 2021

Is the Post Office a business or a right?

California’s longest-running post office in the same building is Santa Cruz’s main branch, in its 1912 National Register landmark. The Santa Cruz postal service started in 1849 as one of the first 10 pre-statehood post offices in California, crucial for county development.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, we now face our first national mail-in ballot election, which will test our democratic infrastructure. Yet the current debate is whether the U.S. Postal Service is a “failing business” to privatize, or a Constitutional right to protect.

Local door-to-door mail service began July 1, 1890, with four carriers. Ben Blaisdell, standing in today’s Pearl Alley off Walnut Avenue, showed the assortment of odd-sized parcels and bundles to fit in his pouches. Some could pack with military precision, as even today, the U.S. Postal Service is one of the largest employer of veterans. (Contributed — Santa Cruz U.S.P.S.)

American origin

In 1683 police officers were the first couriers empowered by Wm. Penn with delivering government correspondence. In 1692, the British Crown first allowed colonial post offices, located either at the home or business address of each postmaster. This was an expensive service, mostly used by rich lawyers, politicians and businessmen.

The Philadelphia post office was losing money, so in 1737 Ben Franklin was appointed its postmaster, locating the post office at his newspaper publishing house. This allowed him not only to circulate his newspaper for free, but to receive news dispatches from widespread sources. Rather than gutting postal service and raising prices, Franklin expanded service, efficiency and affordability, to grow its popularity among all classes. His success led to Franklin’s appointment as Postmaster General of the Colonies in 1743 with Wm. Hunter.

Franklin found or built shorter routes between points, creating an interstate postal highway system, adding posts as mile-markers to calculate postage, introduced courier delivery, package service, overnight delivery, and scheduled delivery times for land and sea routes. He introduced a standard bulk-rate for periodicals, and a Dead Letter Office advertising undeliverable mail in his newspaper. The British government was pleased when Franklin’s colonial postal business showed a profit in 1760.

But in 1774, Franklin published leaked information about British intentions against the American colonies, and the British fired him. So in 1775 the Continental Congress established a rival postal service under Franklin, which most colonists used so the British wouldn’t read their mail, thus bankrupting the Royal colonial mail business. Franklin’s new service became the model for the U.S. Postal Service, using profits to make the system self-funded.

The U.S. Postal Service was first regarded as a military necessity, exempting postmen from the armed services, with the Post Office a medium for running elections, through newspaper coverage, political mailers and correspondence. Fearing its privatization could undermine democratic necessity, in 1789 the postal service was enshrined in Article 1 section 8 of the Constitution, to serve citizens through their Congressional representatives. It bound the nation together through its interstate mass communications system for First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, and redress.

Old California

After California became a U.S. possession in 1848, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company commenced California mail service in January 1849. Yet lacking any official post offices, mail was left at inns, taverns, or general stores. Special agent Wm. Van Voorhees was sent west to establish post offices. Although headed for San Francisco, his ship ran short on coal, so he stopped at Monterey, where on Feb. 23, 1849, he founded the first U.S. Post Office on the west coast. He established one in San Francisco on Feb. 28.

Architect’s sketch for the 1912 Santa Cruz Main Post Office on the corner of Front and Water streets, inspired by the Foundling Hospital in Florence, Italy. Its architects James Knox Taylor and Oscar Wenderoth also designed the 1904 Philadelphia Mint, while Taylor designed San Francisco’s 1905 Court House/Post Office, now the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Contributed — Santa Cruz U.S.P.S.)

After that, self-designated offices popped-up. Sacramento, a crossroads for Gold Rush traffic, got one around May, then Coloma in June (near the gold discovery site). San Jose as the first state capital got a post office by November. Santa Cruz got a post office about September 1849, one of the first 10 opened before statehood. The Santa Cruz Post Office was Federally registered on April 3, 1850.

Just like in Franklin’s day, the local post office moved for the convenience of the postmasters. The Post Office was at Anthony’s Store for more than a decade starting in 1849, with Water Street first known as “Post Office Street,” and Elihu Anthony or his employees as postmasters. The office moved to Anthony’s former hotel in 1862 (now VFW site), in a grocery owned by postmaster Storer W. Field. When Santa Cruz incorporated as a city in 1866, Storer became the town’s first mayor. The post office moved to a home on Mission Street bluff in 1867, then in November 1870, it was in Room 9 of the Alexander Building (south corner of Pacific and Locust) with the city’s first Postmistress, M. Louise Willson. Then in July 1871, it moved to Brazier’s Bookstore, on the west side of upper Pacific Avenue.

In 1876, the post office moved under the clock tower of the Odd Fellows Building, on Pacific Avenue at the head of Church Street. The building was part of the Cooper Street Civic Center, with the street’s namesake William F. Cooper as postmaster, a relative of author James Fenimore Cooper. The office connected to “Irish’s Bookstore & Stationary,” with a bookcase in back for the town library. Mail delivery into the county shifted in 1876 from stage coach to railroad. Then in 1890, door-to-door delivery started with four couriers.

In 1895, the castle-like Chestnutwood’s Business College opened in a three story building at the south corner of Pacific and Walnut, with the post office facing Walnut Street. The new 1899 postmaster was O.J. Lincoln, a relative of Abraham Lincoln. O.J. instituted improvements, making Santa Cruz the eighth community in California to start Rural Free Delivery. It’s 35 mile circuit out Branciforte Drive to Scotts Valley, was driven by a one-armed Civil War veteran named C.H. Randall, who in 1902 shifted to Bonny Doon for five years.

By 1910 the post office had outgrown its space, and was looking to expand. The Swanton Hotel at Front and Water street had burned in 1887, leaving the lot long vacant. This central location was perfect, across the street from the site of the first local office, with room to expand. Downtown called itself “Florence of the West,” which may have inspired Washington D.C. architects to design the post office based on the Florentine Foundling Hospital, the building that began the Italian Renaissance. When opened in 1912, it was one of 45 nationwide post offices to convert their money order department into a Postal Savings Bank, paying 2% interest with some of the first Federally Insured deposits. This concept was not guaranteed for banks until the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) was established in 1933. By 1967 most banks had adopted FDIC protections, and the Postal Bank was discontinued.

Downfall by design

The future of Santa Cruz postal service depends on whom we elect. The millennium brought a Congressional fad for privatizing government programs so they would “run like a business.” Yet the 2008 Recession proved removing government safeguards meant they could also fail like a business. Privatizing the U.S. Postal Service seemed unnecessary for a model of efficiency that used no taxpayer funds. Its revenues derive mostly from ad mailers, postage and lucrative package delivery. In 2005, the Republican-controlled Congress imposed austerity measures, requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund retirement benefits 75 years in the future, including for employees yet unborn. No other government agency, or corporation, does this.

The last year the postal service showed a profit was 2006, then Congress-imposed shortages kicked in, followed by the collapse of postal ad revenues during the 2008 Recession. Still, in 2011, out of 159 nation’s studied, the British research firm “Oxford Strategic Consulting” rated the U.S. as having the best postal service in the world, based on efficiency, numbers served per office, performance, and public trust. And Pew Research noted its 2019 revenue of $71.2 billion would place the U.S. Post Office 43rd on the Fortune 500, were it a private company. CBS analyst Chris Shaw said if Congress hadn’t imposed pre-funded retirement benefits, “…the Postal Service would be break-even or…better.”  (8/20/2020).

Over objections from communities and their congressmen, the postal service downsized its number of facilities 9.3% over the last two decades, even as the number of individual mailboxes has increased by a million-or-so a year (Pew, 5/4/2020). A mailing address is often a prime requirement for voter registration, driver’s license, wages, tax forms and bank account. Even today, a bipartisan 91% of Americans have a favorable view of the postal service. Yet in March 2020, president Trump blocked a $10 billion emergency loan, unless the postal service quadrupled the price of shipping packages. (The funds were released in July).
In June, 2018, the Trump administration announced that their goals for privatizing the post office would raise prices, reduce services, close post offices, reduce the number of collection boxes, end frequency of delivery, replace home delivery with clusterboxes, shed jobs, lower wages, and end “interference” by the people’s representatives. Turning Ben Franklin’s postal service back into the expensively inefficient Royal colonial mail business, can only damage our democratic infrastructure, and the world’s best postal service.

Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel. 

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