IF YOU'RE like most people, you're probably scratching your head over the insanity of a 29-cent first-class stamp. One mental antidote is to reflect on the best and worst aspects of the post office's past.
* Best performance by a postmaster: The award goes to Ben Franklin, the nation's first postmaster. His secret for success: drumming up more business in order to cut rates, visiting colonial post offices (traveling some 1,600 miles in one year) for -- the purpose of eliminating wasteful practices, resisting the attempts of colonial governors to use the mails without paying and making certain that mail rates were in proportion to the distance between pickup and delivery.
Most important, Ben moved the mail with dispatch in an era when everything else moved at a snail's pace. The mail, he noted in January 1764, "passes now between Philadelphia and New York so quick that a letter can be sent from one place to another, and an answer received the day following, which before took a week, and when our plan is executed between Boston and New York, letters may be sent and answers received in four days, which before took a fortnight; and between Philadelphia and Boston in six days, which before required three weeks."
* Worst delivery service by the post office: That occurred when George Washington was president in 1789. On Oct. 3, George sent some missives from New York City to Virginia, a journey that took until Nov. 30. He was absolutely irate. "The detention of these letters," Washington wrote, "is a matter of some importance . . . and I wish exceedingly to know where they were detained, and whether it was owing to the inattention of any Post Master through whose hands they must have passed, or a worst cause."
* Biggest boo-boo by mail handlers: That affected old George, too. It was 1798 when the ex-president sent a letter via the Alexandria, Va., post office to Alexander Hamilton. A few days later the same letter was delivered to George. "It is not the first, nor second time I have been served in this manner," Washington wrote the Alexandria postmaster, "but it may be considered as evidence of the inattention with which the duties of your office are discharged."
* Best idea by the post office: This goes to "immediate delivery" (today known as special delivery), a service initiated in 1885 which relied on young boys as messengers. Because the boys were not employees, there was no expense to the post office for delivery equipment.
In the first year of service, a million special-delivery letters were delivered; by 1917 there were 25 million. What is more, the rate in 1917, 10 cents, was the same as in 1885.
* Worst budgetary woes, best service: In the long era from 1851 to 1968, the post office balanced its budget only 13 times.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.