The Post Office and the Making of America

 

Winifred Gallagher is a good storyteller, a scholar who selects interesting topics and writes excellent narratives of value both to academics and the public. She has written books about purses, houses, and the meaning of place. Her latest book, How the Post Office Created America: A History (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), helps us understand another dimension of what we deem to be the information age, one we often take for granted.

Most of us have firm opinions about the postal system. I love mail, even the worse junk that arrives with it. It provides a window into our culture and, every once in a while, an interesting personal letter or other personal communication comes with it. The postal system also drives me crazy, occasionally losing mail or damaging it or just not delivering it. Whatever our feelings about it, the post office has been critically important to our country. Gallagher argues, “with astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications superpower” (p. 1). Gallagher’s book “tells the nation’s story from the perspective of its communications network” (p. 5).

Gallagher weaves the story of the development and role of the post office including, among other things, railroads, stamp collecting, greeting cards, newspapers, personal correspondence, economics, politics and patronage, law and legislation, technology, and significant personalities. It is a good read. Gallagher discusses the construction of the great post offices, symbols of America’s might, and she deftly charts the debate about whether the postal service is a business or a public service. Gallagher concludes that the post office is the institution that “did the most to create America’s expansive, forward-looking, information- and communications-oriented culture” (p. 287).

The book could have been better. A stronger bibliography would help the reader to delve more into this topic. The set of illustrations do not support Gallagher’s own text about the symbolic and cultural significance of the post office; it looks like an add-on when it could have been a much better addition to her thesis.

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