by Christopher Grisham
If someone tells you that you’ve got mail, most people today think of e-mail. Packages are delivered mostly by FedEx, UPS, or Amazon. To talk to you, your friends may use the phone to call or text you instead of sending a letter. When your parents open the mailbox outside, it is probably full of junk mail and bills. It may seem like it would be easy to live without the Post Office today, but using it is still a great way to commmunicate.
Envelope with stamp, Tennessee State Museum collection
Have you noticed a small decorative picture in the upper corner of envelopes when they come in the mail? Those are postage stamps, and you can thank a Tennessean for those. When James K. Polk became President in 1845, he put a fellow Tennessean in charge of the Postal Service. Cave Johnson became the Postmaster General. When he took over, he wanted to make the Post Office more efficient for people to use. He made changes to make getting your mail to the post office easier. Street corner mailboxes started showing up in bigger cities. Delivery people even started collecting mail from people’s houses. The biggest change he made was to start using pre-paid postage stamps.
President Polk’s Cabinet –Cave Johnson in the back center
James K. Polk Memorial collection
Cave Johnson didn’t invent the postage stamp. They were already being used in England and by private delivery companies in the United States. What Cave Johnson did was make postage stamps a regular part of the USPS. You could now buy stamps at set prices and send mail anywhere you wanted.. The first stamps were sold in New York City on July 1, 1847. You could buy one for five cents that had a picture of Benjamin Franklin on it, or one for ten cents with a picture of George Washington. Today there are many kinds of stamps with many different designs. There is even a word for people that collect stamps, a philatelist.
Commemorative Elvis Coin and Stamp, Tennessee State Museum collection
Before Cave Johnson, if you wanted to send a letter to a friend it was not easy. You would have had to take a letter to the nearest post office yourself and leave it there. Then they would deliver it to the post office in your friend’s town. Not only would your friend have to go to the post office to pick up the letter, but they would have to pay for it themselves. Before we used stamps, the post office would charge people to pick up their mail, not to send it. Right now, you can go to the post office and buy a postage stamp for 55 cents. When you put that stamp on an envelope, it proves that you already paid to mail it. Then you put your letter in your mailbox. The Postal Service will send your letter to your friend’s house anywhere in the country or outside of the country!
Did you know that today the United States Postal Service (USPS) has almost half a million workers? They drive 228,000 vehicles over 231,000 routes that connect every house in the country. It is the job of the USPS to keep every American connected. That is a lot of hard work! Just a year after the first stamp, California was added to the United States. Keeping people in touch with each other became harder and more important as the country grew. The changes that Cave Johnson made to the Postal Service helped to organize the way that mail was sent across the entire country and are still helping us today. The postage stamp was one small but important tool to do that. And it is all thanks to one Cave from Tennessee.
Route – the directions you go from one place to another
Efficient – the way to do something best with the least work
Pre-paid – to pay before
Private – a business or company owned by a person and not the government
How many people work for the Postal Service?
When was the first postage stamp issued in the United States?
Who were the first two people to be shown on a postage stamp?
When do you think sending a letter in the mail is the best way to communicate? Why?
Write a letter to a friend or family member that you haven’t talked to in a long time and mail it to them.
Stamps usually have designs that are pretty (like flowers), represent something (an American flag), or honor a person (Ida B. Wells). If you had the opportunity to create the next stamp what would it look like? Design and draw your idea for a stamp.
TN State Standards
5.40 Identify the impact of important Tennesseans prior to the Civil War, including:
David Crockett and Sam Houston (Texas War for Independence and the Alamo)
President James K. Polk (Manifest Destiny)
Sequoyah (Cherokee syllabary)
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Education Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.