Change Afoot: The Advent of Free Mail Delivery

As always, June has flown by and July is peeking around the corner.  And, as always, on July 1st, new laws and regulations will be passed across the country.

We found one change that occurred on July 1, 1873, that affected everyday life for citizens within the city limits of Davenport – the day the Davenport branch of the United States Post Office started free mail delivery to homes and businesses.

U.S. Post Office free city mail delivery had actually begun nationally on July 1, 1863 with service in 49 branches within the union (southern states were part of the confederate government, and so were not included). Up to that time, a person could either retrieve their mail for free by going to the post office or pay a private company to deliver mail to a home or business. The free mail delivery experiment was a success and began to be adopted across the country.

The only stipulation the post office department had, prior to 1887, was that the population of the city being served had to be over 20,000 people. Davenport finally reached a population of 20,000 in 1870—reports state 20,038 to be exact. Soon the local postmaster began to work on bringing free delivery to the city;  rural delivery would not be started nationally until the 1890s.

On April 2, 1873 at the Davenport city council meeting Postmaster Edward Russell requested the renumbering of houses and renaming of streets in preparation for July 1st. He had found that streets in newer parts of the city had the same names and house numbers as those in older areas. Russell also asked that longer streets be divided into north, south, east and west to help with delivery. The city council approved these changes. Postmaster Russell also ordered uniforms of gray cloth (by now the standard color for the carriers), leather carrying bags, and 24 additional mail boxes to be added to the nineteen already in use on the streets.

For their part, citizens were being asked to put numbers on their houses to make delivery more efficient. Newspaper articles described how residents needed to address their mail and that postage was now mandatory for mail to be delivered. If mail arrived at the post office without a house number and street, a clerk would look up the person on an address list to assist in delivery.

The city of Davenport was divided into five districts, which were posted in the newspaper. The names of the first five mail carriers were held in secret until the first of July.   District No. 1 carrier was postal clerk Robert Osborne, District No. 2 was served by John D. Tichenor who previously served as a janitor at the court house, District No. 3 was the route of former shoemaker Jacob Felger, District No. 4 was covered by former mason Samuel Hoffman, and District No. 5 had William Preston, a former grocer. According to the census of 1870, all the men were in their 30s or early 40s when hired. All but one of the men were still employed in Davenport as letter carriers in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census; William  Preston and his family relocated about 1879 to Wheatland, Kansas to farm.

Early on the morning of July 1st, the first round of mail delivery began. The newspapers reported that it took about two hours for each carrier to do his route. They then returned to wait for mail to arrive by the eastern train to do another round in the evening; this meant twice daily delivery six days a week.  For those without personal mailboxes, which were not required by law until 1916, the letter carriers would knock (using a small wooden knob to save their knuckles), ring the bell twice, or sometimes blow a whistle to let people know they were at the door.

The start of free mail delivery also meant changes at the post office, which was located on the southwest corner of Third and Perry Streets. The Daily Davenport Democrat reported on June 28, 1873, that within a month of the start of delivery, the post office would be renovated to allow for new use of some areas.

The federal government, it seems, had been greatly concerned about the mixing of male and female patrons within the post office up to this point. Before home delivery, many women had to collect their mail from the post office (this number went up greatly during the Civil War). The government encouraged postmasters to create ladies’ only letter windows or ladies’ only rooms at the post office so they would not be disturbed by male patrons. Women were also served by female staff members in these areas, which helped to keep female and male employees separate as well. Some post offices even went as far as to have male and female entrances for patron comfort.

But now, Davenport ladies could wait for mail at home. The Democrat reported that the Davenport post office’s “ladies’ letter delivery” would be changed into a room for the carriers (Daily Davenport Democrat, June 28, 1873, Pg. 1). With no further description, we are left wondering exactly how seperate this ‘ladies’ letter delivery’ might have been. Another mystery to solve!

Now a daily event in our lives that goes by largely unnoticed, one can imagine the twice daily arrival of mail for the first time with the sounds of wooden rapping or whistles blowing carrying through the streets. News from beyond the neighborhood carried by five dedicated men leaving a lasting legacy we remember.

(posted by Amy D.)

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