The Unlikely Alliance That Ended Sunday Mail Delivery ... in 1912

Amazon's new deal with the U.S. Postal Service will reverse a century-old approach to mail.
More
A newspaper delivery vehicle for the Sunday Mail in Brisbane, Australia (Wikimedia Commons)

With the help of an extremely 21st century company, the Postal Service is going back—in a small way—to its 17th-century roots. When the U.S. Postal Service teams up with Amazon to offer Sunday mail delivery, the move will mark the first Sunday mail delivery the U.S. has seen, with a few exceptions, for a century. 

The USPS, as Alexis points out, has long been an early adopter. The system that laid, literally, the groundwork for a growing nation wasn't just about mail; it was also about connection. It was "the sole communication lifeline of the newly formed nation." The Founders and their followers recognized this. Until the USPS was reorganized in the 1970s, the final position in the presidential line of succession was, yep, the Postmaster. And i1810, Congress passed a law requiring that local post offices be open for at least an hour on Sundays; most were open for much longer. 

Despite and because of all that, the Postal Service was also … a party. As the historian Claude Fischer puts it, "post offices themselves were important community centers, where townsfolk met, heard the latest news read aloud, and just lounged about." (The offices played that role, in part, because the Postal Service didn't offer home delivery, even in large cities, until after 1860.) On Sundays, that town-center role was magnified. When everything else was closed but the local church, post offices were places you could go not just to pick up your mail, but also to hang out. They were taverns for the week's tavern-less day. "Men would rush there as soon as the mail had arrived," Fischer writes, "staying on to drink and play cards." 

Post offices, as a result, were also sources of controversy. In the 1820s, leaders from a variety of Protestant denominations campaigned to end Sunday delivery on religious grounds. Similar movements would arise over the course of the 19th century. And the objection wasn't just to the Sunday-ness of Sunday delivery, to the fact that mail delivery on Sunday was a violation of the Sabbath. It was also to the social-ness of Sunday delivery. The six-day-delivery campaigns, Fischer writes, were "part of the churches’ wider efforts to enforce a 'Puritan Sabbath' against the demands of Mammon and against worldly temptations like those card games." Exacerbating the problem, from the Puritanical perspective, was the rise in immigration among Catholics, "many of whom," Fischer notes, "celebrated 'Continental' Sundays which included all sorts of secular pleasures—picnics, even beer halls—after (or instead of) church."

The Ellisville, Illinois, Post Office, photographed on July 30, 1891 (USPS)

But the many protests that periodically sprang up to challenge Sunday delivery would, inevitably, fail. There was, for one thing, a First Amendment argument to be made in favor of daily mail delivery: To prioritize Sunday over another day—many religions, if they celebrate a Sabbath, do so on Saturday—would be, implicitly, to prioritize one religion over another. In 1828, the Kentucky Senator Richard M. Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads and a devout Baptist, declared any federal attempt to give preference to the Christian Sabbath to be unconstitutional. The line between church and state when it came to Sunday mail delivery, he argued, "cannot be too strongly drawn." 

The more pressing argument for Sunday delivery, however, was economic. "The 1844 invention of the telegraph would eventually put an end to the commercial need for daily mail," Susan Jacoby notes in an essay on religion and the Constitution, "but in the 1820s and '30s, business still depended on the government to keep the mails moving seven days a week." Back then, a significant proportion of business dealings—not just correspondence, but financial transactions—was conducted through the post office. Businessmen argued that they needed Sunday posting capabilities to do their work. And they "found allies," Fischer notes, "among some evangelical ministers, particularly Baptists, and among secular laymen who saw the sabbatarian drive as a power grab by high-status, eastern churchmen."

Toward the end of the 19th century, though, another alliance would arise: Religious leaders would join with organized labor to end Sunday mail delivery. For workers, closing post offices on Sundays wasn't necessarily a matter of religion, but it was a matter of time. A Sunday-less work week was also a six-day work week. (Though, Fischer points out, "the church-labor alliance did have its limits. Protestant ministers and the union men disagreed on how the Lord’s day of 'rest' should be spent—in religious devotion or in play.")

It proved to be the right alliance for the right time. By the early 20th century, new technologies—the telegraph, the telephone, the train—had reduced people's urgent reliance on the Postal Service. They could then, better than they could have before, do without Sunday deliveries. In 1912, without any debate on the matter, Congress added a rider to a funding bill. It ordered that "hereafter post offices ... shall not be opened on Sundays for the purpose of delivering mail to the public." On August 24, Taft signed the bill into law. On September 1, it was enacted

And for just over a century, that law was, with its few exceptions, obeyed. As a result, we've all grown up in a United States that translates the logic of the Bible—Sunday, the day of rest—to the commercial and communicational lives of its citizens. In a small way, thanks to a company that is also an early adopter—and that is also, in its way, reorganizing the nation—that is now changing. The day of rest need no longer be fully restful. If you are, that is, a member of Amazon Prime.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In