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Let’s hear it for the P.O.

Many things have vanished in rural America. Jobs and people (particularly young people) are at the top of the list. One institution that remains is the U.S. Postal Service, which has shown a remarkable ability to change with the times.

Though I lived in San Francisco for 17 years, much of my life has been spent in rural America, with a rural mailbox. I feel sorry for people who open their mailbox and mostly find bills. I get some of those, too. Still, after all these years, opening the mailbox each day and seeing what’s inside is like a tiny Christmas that comes every day.

When I was a boy, I eagerly awaited the little packages that brought fresh chemicals or glassware that I’d ordered for my chemistry set. I often ordered little doodads that were advertised in comic books. For years, I received regular catalogs from the U.S. Government Printing Office, and I ordered little books and pamphlets on all sorts of subjects. Everyone received a Sears catalog. As a teenage nerd, I got lots of electronics catalogs such as Allied Radio and Electronics. When I was older and had friends, and when those friends began to scatter, it was the post office that kept us in touch — letters typed on manual typewriters and mailed in legal-size envelopes, always with commemorative stamps for better presentation. Many of those old letters from friends still survive in trunks in the attic, which I refer to as the archives.

Everyone has email these days, so letters in the mailbox are, sadly, a thing of the past. But opening the mailbox is still a tiny Christmas. Amazon Prime, of course, is the new Sears catalog. All those boxes bother me (though of course I recycle them). But Amazon Prime does greatly reduce the amount of driving one has to do. Since the mail carrier drives through every day anyway, there are efficiencies there in maintaining rural supply lines.

What started me thinking about the reliability of the post office was the unreliability of UPS and Fedex in rural areas. Fedex can hardly ever find me. (The truth is that Fedex drivers don’t try very hard, because they obviously detest rural deliveries.) UPS does a better job here, but not much better. UPS and Fedex are just not efficient for rural delivery. Whereas the U.S. Postal Service knows its rural customers because they deliver every day.

Rural Free Delivery has been the rule in the U.S. since about 1900. Before that, people had to go to a post office to pick up their mail. Still — and this is just as true today — mail carriers don’t deliver mail to every rural door or driveway. Mailboxes are often clustered to make delivery easier. If your home is remote (as mine is), then your mailbox may be some distance away. My mailbox is half a mile away. I can stop and pick up the mail if I’m in the car, or I can walk a nice woodland trail to pick up the mail, just over a mile round trip.

The use of First Class mail continues to decline. But, since 2014, Postal Service revenue from online retailers has been steadily increasing and is making money for the Postal Service.

Not too long ago, I was saying to a friend that rural living today is a privilege. Obviously people need jobs, and they need reasonable commutes. Rural living is not very efficient for most working people. For retired people like me, rural living is efficient, if one stays off the roads as much as possible and especially if one grows at least some of one’s food, as many rural people used to do. It’s shocking to reflect on the fact that the world’s population is now twice what it was when I was born. That is just too many people, so it is a great gift — if you like peace and quiet and nature — to live in a place where the population actually is declining rather than growing. The U.S. Postal Service is as necessary to rural life today as it was in 1902.


  1. Dan wrote:

    My wife and I recently drove north through rural Arkansas through even more remote areas in the Ozarks. As we were driving to a recreation area I used to frequent, we were counting the kinds of jobs that might be available to people who still reside in tiny communities. Mechanic, mail carrier, handyman, trucking, rural bus driver, maybe general or convenience store proprietor, pastor. There are others – rural areas still need doctors, lawyers, and bankers but those are in slightly larger, county seat towns. It was a little depressing driving through and not getting cellular signal. Maybe those who are disconnected from society-at-large are better off that way.

    Sunday, December 2, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  2. Jo wrote:

    If we receive an over-size package, our mail carrier will usually drive up our unpaved road and deliver it to the house. Mailing a letter is still a real bargain, though as you mentioned, more of a rarity now. As you, I enjoy the quiet of a rural area.

    Sunday, December 2, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

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