CHAPTER XIII. THE POST-OFFICE.
Any Englishman or Frenchman residing in the American States cannot fail to be struck with the inferiority of the post-office arrangements in that country to those by which they are accommodated in their own country. I have not been a resident in the country, and as a traveler might probably have passed the subject without special remark, were it not that the service of the post-office has been my own profession for many years. I could therefore hardly fail to observe things which to another man would have been of no material moment. At first I was inclined to lean heavily in my judgment upon the deficiencies of a department which must be of primary importance to a commercial nation. It seemed that among a people so intelligent, and so quick in all enterprises of trade, a well-arranged post-office would have been held to be absolutely necessary, and that all difficulties would have been made to succumb in their efforts to put that establishment, if no other, upon a proper footing. But as I looked into the matter, and in becoming acquainted with the circumstances of the post-office learned the extent of the difficulties absolutely existing, I began to think that a very great deal had been done, and that the fault, as to that which had been left undone, rested not with the post-office officials, but was attributable partly to political causes altogether outside the post-office, and partly - perhaps chiefly - to the nature of the country itself.
It is I think undoubtedly true that the amount of accommodation given by the post-office of the States is small, as compared with that afforded in some other countries, and that that accommodation is lessened by delays and uncertainty. The point which first struck me was the inconvenient hours at which mails were brought in and dispatched. Here in England it is the object of our post-office to carry the bulk of our letters at night; to deliver them as early as possible in the morning, and to collect them and take them away for dispatch as late as may be in the day; so that the merchant may receive his letters before the beginning of his day business, and dispatch them after its close. The bulk of our letters is handled in this manner, and the advantage of such an arrangement is manifest. But it seemed that in the States no such practice prevailed. Letters arrived at any hour in the day miscellaneously, and were dispatched at any hour, and I found that the postmaster at one town could never tell me with certainty when letters would arrive at another. If the towns were distant, I would be told that the conveyance might take about two or three days; if they were near, that my letter would get to hand "some time to-morrow." I ascertained, moreover, by painful experience that the whole of a mail would not always go forward by the first dispatch. As regarded myself this had reference chiefly to English letters and newspapers. "Only a part of the mail has come," the clerk would tell me. With us the owners of that part which did not "come," would consider themselves greatly aggrieved and make loud complaint. But in the States complaints made against official departments are held to be of little moment.
Letters also in the States are subject to great delays by irregularities on railways. One train does not hit the town of its destination before another train, to which it is nominally fitted, has been started on its journey. The mail trains are not bound to wait; and thus, in the large cities, far distant from New York, great irregularity prevails. It is I think owing to this - at any rate partly to this - that the system of telegraphing has become so prevalent. It is natural that this should be so between towns which are in the due course of post perhaps forty-eight hours asunder; but the uncertainty of the post increases the habit, to the profit of course of the companies which own the wires, but to the manifest loss of the post-office.
But the deficiency which struck me most forcibly in the American post-office, was the absence of any recognized official delivery of letters. The United States post-office does not assume to itself the duty of taking letters to the houses of those for whom they are intended, but holds itself as having completed the work for which the original postage has been paid, when it has brought them to the window of the post-office of the town to which they are addressed. It is true that in most large towns - though by no means in all - a separate arrangement is made by which a delivery is afforded to those who are willing to pay a further sum for that further service; but the recognized official mode of delivery is from the office window. The merchants and persons in trade have boxes at the windows, for which they pay. Other old-established inhabitants in town, and persons in receipt of a considerable correspondence, receive their letters by the subsidiary carriers and pay for them separately. But the poorer classes of the community, those persons among which it is of such paramount importance to increase the blessing of letter writing, obtain their letters from the post- office windows.