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02102013-2“You have mail” used to refer to real mail, snail mail, mail in the mailbox by your curb or on your porch. For centuries the United States Postal Service brought letters that connected family and friends when phones and computers were non-existent, uncommon, or expensive. The USPS remitted bills and advertisements, and delivered invitations and packages. Some days you opened the mailbox with trepidation, on other days, with hopeful anticipation. Today, written letters face extinction as more and more people choose to communicate by email and phone.

02102013-9“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat,
nor gloom of night,
stays these couriers from the swift completion
of their appointed rounds.”

02102013-7Herodotus wrote these words in 503 B.C. about the Greeks yet, for many Americans, they describe the United States Postal Service and its promise to deliver mail without fail, no matter the conditions. Unfortunately, Herodotus’ quote does not include increased debt. Despite a recent hike in stamp prices (on January 27, the cost of a first class stamp rose a penny to .46 cents), the USPS struggles to break even. In an effort to address their increasing fiscal shortfall, Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general, announced this week that beginning August 1, 2013, the USPS will no longer deliver letters on Saturday. Packages will still be delivered.

02102013-1This week, revisit the history of the United States Postal Service, and examine the factors that led to the demise of the Saturday delivery. You will not need to brave snow, rain, heat, or the dark of night. Your mission can be accomplished online and in the comfort of your home.

The USPS’ Journey Through Time—
02102013-10The United States was still a colony when stagecoaches delivered the first mail. Letters and newspapers were an important form of communication during a contentious political time. The exhibit Systems at Work, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s Postal Museum, teleports visitors back to the early 1800s and then tracks the evolution of the United States postal system. Discover how the early postal system worked and trace key changes to the postal service. The exhibit begins in 1808; use the dates in the left margin or the ‘next’ button and read through ‘Today’. View an overview of the inventions and systems involved in delivering your mail. Use the numbers at the bottom of the slideshow to advance. Then visit the Smithsonian exhibit, Fifteen Objects that Changed Postal History. This exhibit displays historical objects that represent changes in the America’s postal service’s organization, and in the transportation, processing, and delivery of mail in the United States. Click on each image to read a description of the item and a summary of its significance.

02102013-6Have you ever stopped to consider all that is required for an envelope to travel from one place to another? It is a multi-faceted system that involves payment, sorting and tracking, transportation, and delivery. The postal system has changed significantly over the ages. In some steps, people have been replaced by enormous and complex automated machines. However, people are still key; there is no replacement for the delivery person. Postal employees delivered 168 billion pieces of mail in 2011. Watch the fascinating video All Systems at Work to see today’s postal system at work.

The Future of the USPS—
02102013-4 What factors are causing the USPS financial shortfall? A common answer is the surge in online billing, and changes in how people keep in touch—social networks, texting, and email—mean fewer bills and letters are mailed. While true, that is only part of the story. The Real News considers another factor contributing to the USPS belt-tightening, and ideas for saving money. Watch their full video report. As you watch, record some of the ways the USPS might decrease expenses on a comparison-contrast chart. (Use the Points column for this.) In the Subject 1 column, track what supporters of the idea say. In the Subject 2 column, track how opponents respond. 

02102013-5In Snail Mail Goes Mobile, find out about the numbers behind the USPS’ financial crunch, and examines some ways in which the postal service is adapting to the changing market. Study the statistics it presents. The Postal Service is trying to respond to changes in how people communicate by unveiling new products. Watch the App Review video. What ideas do you have about new products or changes the USPS might introduce to increase their relevance and boost their bottom line?

02102013-8The USPS is at a crossroads—will it adapt and continue to thrive in a new era of communication, or will it fall? What is the future of the United States Postal Service? Return to the Smithsonian Postal Museum and consider: What role does mail play in your life today? What do you think needs to be improved? What’s the biggest challenge facing the U.S. Postal Service?  How would you answer these questions? 

On the surface, the story of the United States' Postal Services' financial woes seems simple--decreased volume. However, a deeper look reveals several factors. It is about how changing technology influences business and customer behavior and how politics influence business. But, the history of the United States Postal Service also reveals that it is a business adept at changing to new technologies. We will have to see what the future delivers for the USPS.