The unofficial creed inscribed above the entrance to New York City’s main post office—“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—derives from the Greek historian Herodotus, who described the postal riders of ancient Persia in similar terms. Civilization has always depended on messengers, a hardy, dedicated crew who mostly do their jobs well—though there have been a few miscreants.
During his 84 years, Ben Franklin achieved more than the average person could manage in half a dozen lifetimes. This author, publisher, scientist, diplomat, statesman and inventor (of bifocals, the lightning rod and the Franklin stove) was also the first postmaster general of the United States, appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775. Franklin had the right résumé for the job: As a young man he’d served as Philadelphia’s postmaster, and in 1753 the British Crown had installed Franklin to serve as postmaster for the colonies but later booted him because of his revolutionary sympathies.
In 1760 Franklin reported the colonial postal service’s first surplus, at a time when postage was simply noted on the envelope (the sender paid in advance or deferred to the recipient). As national postmaster, he developed a comprehensive, speedy delivery system, laying the groundwork for the Post Office Department and its successor, the U.S. Postal Service—an independent, quasi-governmental agency created in 1971. Franklin’s dedication was eventually rewarded: His plump, avuncular image—familiar to anyone who’s seen a $100 bill—adorned one of the first two postage stamps the United States issued, in 1847. The other featured George Washington’s equally iconic mug.
The U.S. Postal Service, which employs more than half a million career workers and operates the world’s largest vehicle fleet, has lately been in deep financial doo-doo. In 2011 the agency reported a loss of $5 billion; in 2012 that figure jumped to $14 billion. One reason for these economic woes is that the USPS is uniquely required by federal law to set aside billions of dollars for future retiree health benefits. But revenue declines are also to blame, because the way people communicate is shifting dramatically. Thanks to the internet and electronic mail, fewer and fewer people are buying stamps.
For most written personal and business communications, email has long since supplanted paper letters. A growing number of people now receive and pay their bills online, send e-cards instead of printed invitations and have swapped holiday cards for social-media postings. As a result of this electronic switchover, the volume of stamped first-class mail has fallen precipitously to less than half what it was a decade ago. Total volume dropped to 168 billion pieces in 2012 from a 2006 high of more than 213 billion—a trend unlikely to change course anytime soon.
The U.S. Postal Service does a decent job under increasingly irksome circumstances, including declining revenues, cost-cutting measures and consumer resistance to proposed post office closures. Despite their forbearance, however, postal employees aren’t generally held in high esteem. Every postal customer has suffered the annoyances of misdelivered mail and surly (or inept) post office clerks. But a darker blot on the reputation of the USPS has been a series of shooting sprees by disgruntled postal workers.
Since 1983, rampages at USPS facilities have caused dozens of deaths, and the phrase going postal has become common parlance for any instance of violent, workplace-related rage. In truth, studies show USPS employees are no more likely than any other workers to be lazy, mean or incompetent—or to massacre their colleagues. But the idea has become fixed in the popular imagination, perhaps most famously (and hilariously) embodied by Newman, the menacing postal carrier on 1990s megahit Seinfeld. Newman will not work in the rain, crumples packages labeled “Do not bend” and blackmails postal customers. He explains the “going postal” phenomenon as a natural reaction to the job: “The mail never stops! It just keeps coming and coming and coming. There’s never a letup! It’s relentless!”
The wackily abstruse plot of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 hinges on the possible existence of a shadowy postal-delivery organization called the Tristero. In Pynchon’s telling, the (fictional) Tristero once competed with the (real, historical) postal service operated by the noble Thurn und Taxis family, which for three centuries controlled mail distribution in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Tristero went underground after being defeated. But Oedipa Maas, the novel’s paranoid heroine, keeps turning up evidence of its conspiratorial activity. What threat the Tristero now poses remains unclear, but the organization—if it exists and isn’t just an artifact of Oedipa’s conspiracy fantasies—may be up to no good.
That a postal service might be pursuing evil ends seems ridiculous—until a check you’re desperately waiting for gets “lost” in the mail. Everyday worries about the U.S. Postal Service’s potentially nefarious agenda stoked the humor in NBC’s absurdist sitcom Seinfeld (1989–1998), in which Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis is a mailman named Newman (Wayne Knight). Over the course of the series, Newman reveals that zip codes are meaningless, damaged packages are considered “freebies,” and mail carriers never deliver more than half the mail they’re entrusted with!
As bearers of good tidings, messengers are heroic. Take Pheidippides, who in 490 B.C. sprinted 25 miles from the battlefield at Marathon to bring Athens word of its victory over Persian invaders—then promptly dropped dead of exhaustion. Celebrating the resourceful courier who overcomes stiff odds to accomplish a mission is a cultural constant: Examples range from Pony Express riders to the intrepid bicycle messenger played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in David Koepp’s 2012 film Premium Rush. Meanwhile, another constant is the tendency to demonize emissaries who betray their charge. Thus the disgust reserved for double agents—and, in a comic vein, Jerry Seinfeld’s description of Newman, a postal worker who stashes undelivered mail in his apartment building’s basement, as “pure evil.”
But what of the messenger who fulfills his duty by conveying bad news? The moral ambiguity of that unhappy role is the subject of Oren Moverman’s Messenger, starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as Army servicemen assigned to “bereavement notification.” In plain English, they’re the guys who knock on doors to tell parents and spouses their loved ones have been killed in action. Neither contemptible nor celebrated, these soldiers face slaps and insults for the difficult message they carry.
Being a messenger can demand a special set of attributes. Those Western Union employees who delivered singing telegrams (a service the company offered from 1933 until 1974) had to be able to carry a tune. Homing pigeons—used extensively for military communications during both world wars—instinctually find their way back from remote, unfamiliar locations. UPS deliverymen seem contractually required to be buff, square-jawed hunks—a suspicion comically exploited in the 2001 film Legally Blonde. And the help-wanted ad for Pony Express riders (who may have included the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok) specified that applicants be “young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Willing to risk death daily.” Orphans, the ad declared, were preferred.
But what attributes could possibly enable a person to maintain an even keel while performing the unsavory task, day in and day out, of bringing people the news that their sons, daughters, husbands or wives have died in the line of duty? Whatever those traits may be, Captain Tony Stone—played by Woody Harrelson in The Messenger—hasn’t got them. Portraying a by-the-book guy whose job unravels him, Harrelson is both riveting and terrifically hard to watch.
The Pony Express figures so importantly in the lore of the American West, it’s hard to believe this superfast mail-delivery service lasted only 18 months. Founded in April 1860 by the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, the Pony Express met the need—critical during the lead-up to the Civil War—for rapid communication between the eastern United States and California, whose population had burgeoned since the Gold Rush of 1849. By riding at a gallop and changing horses at relay stations every 10 or 15 miles along the route, these intrepid couriers traversed the grueling 2,000-mile trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento in a breakneck 10 days—sometimes less.
But the service was financially troubled (one of its founders was indicted for embezzlement), and it quickly became outmoded when telegraph lines linking the East and West Coasts were completed in October 1861. The Pony Express shut down operations that same month. Its achievements—shining though short-lived—have been commemorated on four U.S. postage stamps. The USPS has even trademarked the Pony Express logo. But it will have to overcome massive debt and technological competition to avoid following that legendary delivery service into oblivion.