Franklin Ledgers - Contextual Information
How did people communicate before the invention of email, texting, or even phone calls? Well they sent a letter of course! While the United States Postal Service has only existed since 1971 as an independent agency, there has been a mail system in the United States since before it became a country. In fact while Benjamin Franklin might be known for his scientific and political achievements, one of his first leadership roles was as postmaster. Initially he was Postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 to 1753 before being elevated to Deputy Postmaster General of the British North American Colonies in 1753. Due to his American sympathies (especially regarding the Hutchinson Affair where Franklin shared letters from Thomas Hutchinson requesting more British troops to stop American rebels with prominent American politicians) in 1774 he was removed from the post by British government officials. Finally the Continental Congress offered him the job of Postmaster General for the new country in 1775. Overall he spent almost 40 years involved in the mail system!
Franklin made a number of systemic improvements during his time as postmaster, but some stand out more than others. His biggest changes were expanding the number of postal routes, having mail riders run at night, simplifying prices, and posting them in easy to see places. Before Franklin, many local postmasters did not display simple pricing guides, which made it hard to know how much sending your letter cost. Benjamin Franklin also mandated that every newspaper that was paid for had to be delivered. Previously, many postmasters also owned newspapers and would make more money by not allowing their competitors to use the mail service. He even started a practice of printing lists of uncollected mail in newspapers to decrease the number of undelivered letters. At the time, mail had to be picked up from the post office and did not need to be paid for beforehand. Whenever someone failed to pick up a letter, that usually meant that the post office made no money on it. Franklin’s idea increased the number of people who collected their mail and led to decreased revenue losses.
Benjamin Franklin was a strong believer in the civic duty of everyone to assist their community. The post office gave him yet another way to help his fellow citizens; however that does not mean he did not use it to his benefit as well. By running the post office, Franklin could send free mail (called the franking privilege). He chose to send his own newspaper for free, saving his printing business money. His ability to send free mail also helped grow the scientific community within the Thirteen Colonies and strengthen their connections to Europe as Franklin would send many letters to scientists, politicians, and natural philosophers all over the world and help connect them to each other.
This is not to say that the post office was perfect in Franklin’s time. In addition to the changes and unjust privileges discussed above, the post office still had many issues to address. For one, mail delivery was based on distance and especially for far away locations the cost would be quite high. Only more developed areas even had mail routes and nowhere could you send anything bigger than a newspaper for a reasonable price. Paper was also expensive. Added to that, was the fact that the unreliability of the postal service meant people would send multiple copies of a letter to ensure that one arrived. These factors all helped to raise the price of mail and put it out of range of non-elites. Since then, many changes have taken place to fix some of these issues and to expand the offerings of the post office. The Universal Service Obligation of the USPS ensures that everyone gets equal access to the sending and receiving of mail at a reasonable rate, so whether you live in the center of New York City or the remote villages of Alaska you are guaranteed access to the Postal Service. Since 1856 mail must be prepaid, which means the sender pays ahead of time (in the form of a stamp) to send mail. Beginning in 1863 cities meeting certain criteria could have free home delivery of mail instead of picking it up at the post office and eventually this expanded to everyone in 1902. Beginning in 1913 Parcel Post allowed packages to be sent. From 1911 to 1966, some post offices even offered a bank savings system.
All of this goes to show how important the mail system is. It is a vital part of America and is so important, it is specifically mentioned in Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution as a power of Congress. While today cars are used instead of horses and computer records instead of paper ones, the core purpose of the postal system has not changed since its founding making it a reliable form of communication for over 250 years for everything from postcards to medicine to mail-in ballots. Also unlike email or texting, you do not need to worry about having cell reception or electricity!
This set of activities and resources gives you the chance to work with Franklin’s ledgers and see what it would have been like to be a postal employee in the 18th century. There was mail coming in and going out to and from all over and communication between postmasters was often poor. Franklin helped improve the system by devising a series of ledgers to be used to standardize postage and improve record keeping. This system made it easier for postmasters to keep track of who owed money, where mail was coming from, and where it needed to go. Additionally, if all the postmasters were using the same ledger, they could easily compare records and improve interactions between post offices.
Additional Sources Used
Help Expand These Records
Postal records like these can be hard to find because they sometimes weren't considered valuable enough to put in an archive! But to tell a fuller story about relationships between people and places in colonial British North America, we'd love to be able to connect our records from Philadelphia to similar postal records from the other twelve colonies. We could use your help! If you know of any account books, postal records, or other data sources related to the postal service prior to 1800, please let us know at [email protected].
Written by Craig Fox, Museum Guide, with the assistance of Bethany Farrell, APS Digital Franklin Fellow, and Cynthia Heider, Digital Projects Specialist