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Eagle Archives: Standard, aka junk, mail goes back to 19th century

Mail Order IndustryThe New York Times

The nation's first countywide free rural postal delivery service got off to a shaky and contested start Dec. 20, 1896, in Carroll County.

According to multiple media accounts, including the Baltimore Sun, "One of the first pick-ups postal clerk Edwin Shriver had on the inaugural day of Carroll County's Rural Free Delivery service was a greased pig…"

"I'm sure he (the customer) did it as a joke," said Shriver. "But I slapped a 42-cent stamp on its rump and delivered it. That pig squealed the whole way."

A little over three years later, Charles Emory Smith, the 39th postmaster general of the United States and a journalist by trade, visited Westminster on April 30, 1900.

According to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County by historian Jay Graybeal, a May 5, 1900, newspaper article noted that the delegation from Washington came "to attend a banquet … in honor of the successful inauguration of a rural free delivery system in Carroll…"

Upon the group's arrival, "the atmosphere was so thick from the smoke of forest fires that the beautiful vista from Western Maryland College hill was obscured to a large extent…"

Graybeal wrote that, at the celebratory banquet, it was predicted "that Rural Free Delivery would have a significant impact for rural residents..."

If Smith were to come back today, he would find the current state of affairs of the Postal Service look more like that haze produced by the forest fire.

These days, the future beautiful vista at the post office is less than clear, if my last visit there is any indication.

After I opened my box, I let out a squeal much like that of that greased pig in December of 1896. I quickly realized that I had once again fallen prey to the modern scourge upon the postal system that has significantly impacted our lives today, junk mail, or as it is politely referred to by the postal system, "standard mail."

According to the Sears Archives, "In 1888, Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry. Under the banner 'The R.W. Sears Watch Co.', Sears promised his customers that, 'we warrant every American watch sold by us, with fair usage, an accurate time keeper for six years – during which time, under our written guarantee we are compelled to keep it in perfect order free of charge.' "

That mass mailing makes Sears, according to many economic historians, the founder of junk mail. One hundred years ago, there is no doubt that Sears greatly improved rural America's quality of life. Today, the huge volumes of unwanted mail-order catalogs are no joke and have helped erode our quality of life.

Don't complain about the flood of unsolicited mail. "The Postal Service is hoping to deliver even more," according to an article in the New York Times last September.

"Faced with multibillion-dollar losses and significant declines in first-class mail, the post office is cutting deals with businesses and direct mail marketers to increase the number of sales pitches they send by standard mail…"

Now isn't that just special … Unbelievable.

When smoke is not coming out of ears over junk mail, Kevin Dayhoff may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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