Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 16: Post Office and Post Roads

Chapter 16. Records of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and Its Predecessors

Table of Contents

Records of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and Its Predecessors from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Committee on Post Office and Post Roads, 1808-1946

History and Jurisdiction

16.2 A Select Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads was established in 1806 and made a standing committee in 1808. The early membership of the committee consisted of one Member from each state.

16.3 The jurisdiction of the committee extended to all proposed legislation relating to the carrying of the mails, both foreign and domestic. It included the determination of the location, construction, and maintenance of post offices and post roads; the acquisition, lease, or transfer of realty or facilities for postal purposes; and certain aspects of the employment and management of postal employees, such as the pay and leave of letter carriers, and the settlement of claims brought by employees or contractors. It included the regulation of the Postal Service, including postal rates, the franking privilege, and the printing of stamped envelopes. At various times the Railway Mail Service, ocean mail service, pneumatic tube service, postal savings banks, postal telegraphy, the Air Mail Service, and Rural Free Delivery were included in its jurisdiction.

16.4 As part of its responsibility the committee investigated the management of postal facilities, contracts for carrying the mail, and other subjects such as the forgery of postal money orders.

16.5 In 1885 the jurisdiction of the committee was expanded to include appropriation authority. The committee prepared Post Office appropriations bills from that time until 1920 when the authority was revoked under a rule change. The committee functioned until 1946 when its jurisdiction was included in that of the new Committee on Post Office and Civil Service.

Records of the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, 10th-79th Congresses (1808-1946)

Record TypeVolumeCongress (dates)
Minute Books21 vols.50th-67th (1887-1923), 78th-79th (1943-46)
Docket Books43 vols.19th-22d (1825-33), 24th (1835-37), 26th-27th (1839-43), 31st-34th (1849-57), 36th (1859-61), 50th-76th (1887-1941)
Petitions & Memorials94 ft.10th-47th (1808-83), 49th-62d (1885-1913), 64th-66th (1915-21), 68th-77th (1923-42)
Committee Papers27 ft.10th-79th (1808-1946)
Bill Files23 ft.58th-61st (1903-11), 65th-79th (1917-46)
TOTAL:144 ft. and 64 vols. (5 ft.) 
Committee Records Summary Table

16.6 The records of this committee provide a thorough coverage of the various activities that occupied its members during its 138-year existence. The minute books and docket books taken together cover much of the life of the committee. They record the petitions, memorials, bills, resolutions, and other documents that were referred to the committee and their disposition within the committee.

16.7 The bulk of the documents from the early years of the committee are petitions and memorials. Several topics dominate the files during each of the historical periods of the committee. The records from almost every Congress during the years before the Civil War, for example, contain requests for new or expanded post offices, post roads, or postal routes. Opposition to Sunday mail operations was the subject of a continuous stream of petitions and memorials during the early period. A variety of other issues, many of which involved the salaries of postmasters and other employees of the Post Office were considered by the committee during each Congress.

16.8 Claims petitions, usually submitted by Post Office employees or persons who contracted to carry the mails, appear in the records of every Congress before the Civil War. The claims often asked for reimbursement for unexpected expenses involved in the fulfillment of a contract, or for the performance of extraordinary duties. The situation described in the mid-century committee report below is typical of the claims before this committee:

    From the length and difficulties of this contract route, the hostile feelings of the Indians, through part of whose country it passes, and the exposure to robberies, the contractor must always send with the mail a strong escort of well armed men, employed at high wages. There is no prospect that this expense can be discontinued during the existence of the present contract, unless a military escort be allowed the mail, and such an escort will cost the government more than the entire sum proposed to be allowed to the contractor. (34A-D15.1, Claims, H.Rpt. 170 to accompany bill H.R. 385)

16.9 Throughout the century the committee confronted the issue of mail rates, fielding questions from the public concerning the right to use the franking privilege of free postage (31A-G14.3), the correct mailing costs for newspapers and periodicals (22A-G16.3), and the Post Office's use of cumbersome fractional rates (25A-G15.3). Other subjects that were brought before the committee included demands to reduce postage rates (22A-G16.3, 28A-G16.5, 29A-G14.4, 30A-G15.3, 49A-H18.4), and the use of stamped envelopes (39A-H19.6, 41A-H9.3, 42A-H11.4).

16.10 During the second half of the 19th century the committee continued to address many of the same issues that appeared in the earlier years. Petitions and memorials for this period, with several exceptions, are fewer in number than before. The frequency of petitions for post roads and for curtailment of the franking privilege gradually declined, while the volume of requests for more favorable hours and compensation for letter carriers increased greatly.

16.11 Pressures of the Civil War influenced the Post Office Committee to provide for the shipment of small parcels of clothing and other articles to soldiers (37A-G11.17), and, more importantly, to find a safe way for soldiers to send money home, a demand that eventually led to the adoption of postal money orders (33A-G16.7). Seeking further expansion of the banking functions of the Post Office, farmers and reformers representing recent immigrants petitioned for a postal savings system to aid rural areas and small depositors (41A-F19.1, 45A-H18.5, 47A-H18.1). The system was not finally adopted until 1910, and it lasted until 1966.

16.12 Moral crusaders pressured the committee and gained passage of the "Comstock Postal Laws" prohibiting the importation or mailing of immoral literature, art, or contraceptives (36A-G14.4). Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for Suppression of Vice, and later a New York City Postal Inspector, along with allies such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, flooded Congress with objections to the use of the mail for delivering obscene material (49A-H18.6, 51A-H17.9, 52A-H18.3), novels (55A-H21.7), and lotteries (51A-H17.10, 53A-H25.7). This in turn caused civil libertarians to mount petition drives to overthrow the Comstock legislation (46A-H19.1).

16.13 Newspapers and periodicals fought for mailing privileges and fought even harder for lower postage rates (22A-G16.3, 42A-H11.5, 53A-H25.1). Rural weekly newspapers traditionally had thrived due to free passage through the mails; and publishers of all types sought to avoid prepayment of books sent to libraries (39A-H19.3). Rural constituencies attempted to stem the outcry against fourth-class postmasters who served few but cost much (55A-H21.2). Largely successful in stopping any postal reorganization, farm communities sought free delivery service, something urban areas had been receiving since the Civil War had ended (52A-H18.7).

16.14 As the agrarian part of the country became more politically organized through the Grange and the Populist Party, and urban immigrants joined with socialistic minded reformers, the demand for government ownership of the telegraph system grew greater with each passing year. The high-point of public interest came in April 1888, when the House received an avalanche of petitions favoring public sector ownership of the telegraph (50A-H22, 22 ft.).

16.15 After the turn of the century, long standing issues still confronted the committee, such as compensation of postal employees (70A-H12.2), "Star Routes" (74A-H14.4), and the use of the mails for fraud (58A-F28.4). Mail trucks doomed the large city pneumatic-tube network, but petitioners still fought for retention or restoration of the system (55A-H21.1, 66A-H15.6, 74A-H14.6). Memorialists continued their opposition to Sunday mail transactions (60A-H29.4, 62A-H24.2), and petitioners requested issues of commemorative stamps to honor American heroes and achievers (72A-H12.1, 74A-H14.3).

16.16 World War I brought requests for free postage for the armed forces and censorship of "subversive" literature (65A-H14.2). The latter issue extended the scope of earlier demands to halt circulation of anarchist and other radical writings (60A-F41.8).

16.17 The committee papers for this committee, although not voluminous, contain documentation from every Congress between 1805 and the present. The committee papers from every Congress between 1821 and the Civil War contain records related to the claims referred to the committee. In most cases these consist only of the manuscript report that was printed in the Congressional Serial Set, but occasionally supporting papers are filed under this heading.

16.18 Petitioners demanded that the committee survey European postal systems and confront the issue of mail exchanges with foreign countries (33A-G16.2 and G16.35). An excellent overview of the issues and problems the Post Office Committee faced may be seen in a letter of Postmaster General Amos Kendall instructing special postal agent George Plitt to go to Europe and study the British and French postal systems to determine their methods of dealing with postal rates, the franking privilege, transmission of funds, contracts, accounting systems, post roads, rail and steamship transportation, kinds of mail bags, foreign mail dead letters, and a number of other issues (27A-D15.2).

16.19 The committee received correspondence on technological advances of possible use to the Post Office. In 1845 after he left the Post Office Department, Kendall wrote the committee as a representative of Samuel Morse's "Electro-magnetic Telegraph" proposing possible terms for Government use of the invention (29A-D15.2). Ten years later Tennessee petitioners presented a less realistic proposal when they recommended the adoption of Isham Walker's plan of "carrying the mails through the air at a speed of 300 miles per hour" by means of an "air vessel" to be constructed of wire and sheet copper (33A-G16.39). Suggestions about improvements in the use of envelopes (34A-G14.6) and new information about atmospheric pressure tubes to move the mails (34A-D15.5) also reached the committee.

16.20 The committee papers from the 24th Congress contain records related to the investigation of a fire that consumed the Washington, DC Post Office Building in 1836 (24A-D15.2). The records consist of the minute book of the investigating subcommittee as well as diagrams and testimony relating to the incident. The committee also investigated mail contract frauds (43A-F21.5), and envelope frauds in the Stamp Division of the Post Office Department (48A-F27.1).

16.21 The use of the mails to defraud consumers was brought to the committee's attention. Complaints about Doctor Richard, who conducted a mail-order business in "golden pills" (43A-F21.2), the "Sawdust Swindlers," who offered counterfeit money for sale (49A-F28.1), and many others, appear in the files. The distribution of advertisements for lotteries through the mails also drew outcries from the public (39A-F20.4). Although most such solicitations ceased in compliance with laws denying lotteries the use of the mails, Louisiana sponsored a particularly popular and defiant operation. As late as 1890, Postmaster General John Wanamaker notified President Benjamin Harrison of the Louisiana State Lottery Company's repeated violations of the law. According to Wanamaker, the company's national office in Washington, DC alone, received approximately 50,000 pieces of mail per month. Wanamaker asked Harrison to recommend to Congress that stronger legislation be passed and Harrison complied (46A-F26.8, 51A-F30.4). In September 1890, the Post Office Department stopped service to the company.

16.22 In general, the committee records from the Civil War to the turn of the century are sparse--especially for the period 1877-83. For several Congresses, however, the committee papers bulge with abstracts of bids and contracts for the delivery of the mails as well as reports of curtailment of expenses (40A-F19.1, 42A-F20.1).

16.23 Many of the problems that had confronted the committee as the new century began soon found solutions. Legislation was passed making rural free delivery a permanent service in 1902, establishing the postal savings banks in 1910, and a full scale parcel post system in 1913. Modification or enlargement of the existing service tended to dominate the agenda of the committee during this period. Second-class mail issues filled the committee papers, among which are exhibits from a 1911 Commission on Second-Class Mail Matter which include such controversial magazines as the Police Gazette (62A-F30.1). Transportation concerns changed as automobiles and airplanes began to replace trains and ships as the means of moving the mail. The committee papers for the 1920's and 1930's are filled with reports of the costs of air mail (72A-F25.1, 74A-F30.4), including over 100 photographs showing features of the mail transportation service (70A-F27.2).

16.24 The bill files generally consist of folders for each bill and resolution referred to the committee, with related correspondence, petitions and memorials, transcripts of hearings, and other documents. The earliest bill files (58A-D24) include transcripts of unprinted hearings for H.R. 11,371, a bill providing relief for William Anderson, Postmaster of Elkhart, IN, for funds he had deposited in a bank that had failed, and H.R. 11,143 a bill providing delayed compensation for the heirs of John Witter who had delivered mail between 1878 and 1880. Examples of legislation that drew a substantial volume of favorable correspondence or petitions and memorials include: H.R. 13,447, 60th Congress, to prohibit postmasters from furnishing lists of the names of persons receiving mail at their offices, and H.R. 4,549, 59th Congress, to consolidate 3d and 4th class mail. The file for H.J.Res. 368, 65th Congress, to provide for the continuance of government ownership of telephone and telegraph systems in the United States, contains correspondence and transcripts of hearings as well as scientific papers offered as exhibits at the hearings (65A-D17).

Table of Contents

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.