Free City Mail Delivery

US #1238 pictures a Normal Rockwell drawing of a 1860s letter carrier. Click image to order.

On July 1, 1863, the US Post Office inaugurated its free City Mail Delivery Service in part in response to the Civil War.

Before the Civil War, postage only covered the delivery fee between post offices.  People had to go to the post office to pick up their letters during its regular business hours.  Or in larger cities, they could pay an extra 2¢ to have it delivered to their home or use a private delivery firm. 

US #1497 was part of a set of 10 stamps highlighting the work of our postal employees. Click image to order.

Street boxes for mail collection appeared in major cities in 1858, which allowed people to mail letters at their convenience.  But people hoping to receive letters from their Civil War soldiers still had to travel to their nearby post office and wait in line to get their mail.

Joseph W. Briggs was the clerk and assistant to Cleveland’s postmaster, Edwin Cowles.  After watching a group of women shivering in line one harsh winter morning in 1862, Briggs proposed a new system of home mail delivery.  Cleveland’s postmaster quickly approved his plan.  At first, the mail was sorted and taken to grocery stores in Cleveland, where it was distributed.  Later, the mail was delivered to homes. 

In 1862, US Postmaster General Montgomery Blair submitted his annual report to President Abraham Lincoln and recommended free city mail delivery.  He said it would “greatly accelerate deliveries, and promote the public convenience.”  Blair also said that if the system to mail letters was more convenient, more people would use it more often, increasing postal revenue.

US #C66 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the 1st International Postal Conference, which Blair organized. Click image to order.

Congress ultimately agreed with Blair and passed an act establishing free city delivery on March 3, 1863.  The new law would become effective on July 1, 1863, in cities where the income from local postage was enough to cover all the expenses associated with the service.  Generally, this meant cities with populations of 20,000 or more or those with postal revenues of at least $10,000. 

US #2420 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Click image to order.

With this new law came a change in how letters were addressed.  Previously they usually only had a person’s name and city.  Now they also had to include the address.  At the end of the first year, 65 cities offered the service and employed 685 mail carriers.

US #1238 – Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover. Click image to order.

In 1864, Briggs sent a letter to Blair offering ideas for improvements to the nation’s free city delivery system.  Blair was impressed by his ideas and made him special agent in charge of the system, a job he held until his death in 1872.  Briggs was responsible for organizing the service in 52 additional cities throughout the United States.  Briggs later helped design the first mailman’s uniform.

US #1497 – Silk Cachet First Day Cover. Click image to order.

Any cities that met the requirements could petition the Post Office Department for this service.  In addition to the population and postal revenue requirements, they had to have sidewalks and crosswalks, named and lit streets, and numbered houses.  By 1900, the service was available in 796 cities, employing 15,322 carriers. 

US #2420 – Silk Cachet Combination First Day Cover.  Click image to order.

For several years, the letters could only be hand delivered.  If the recipient didn’t answer the door, the carrier kept their letter.  Starting in 1912, new postal customers had to have mail slots or boxes.  This became mandatory for all homes in 1923.  Additionally, while carriers initially made two residential deliveries per day, this practice was ended in 1950.  Today, more than 200,000 carriers deliver mail to homes six days a week.

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  1. Congratulations to Mystic on the 4th anniversary of “This Day In History “. I have enjoyed the articles, historical information, and additional commentary by your readers since the beginning. Looking forward to another year.

  2. No home delivery here, just boxes a block or more away. A new innovation at these mail delivery points would be recycle containers to accept the 50% plus mail that is junk, so we don’t carry it home:(.

  3. Think they have the wrong year listed for when Briggs recommended improvements to Blair in the system. It is listed as 1854. Believe that it should be 1864. Otherwise an interesting account of what else happened on July 1, 1863, the first day of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War.

  4. Very interesting. What we consider today, home delivery didn’t come all at once, but was a process over many years. And as Tom L. said above, if you live in a newer neighborhood, you don’t get home delivery. You have to walk out to a community box in whatever weather and retrieve your mail, and large packages have to be picked up at the post office.

  5. Essentially, a simple First Class mail stamp and the efforts and ideas of one US citizen has been the reason how cities got built all over the world, including our own street address, side walks and street lights in urban areas. I salute to this for I can be comfortable in my home not complaint why the mail is bit late in its delivery to my own mailbox.


  7. Although mail is still delivered six days a-week in our neighborhood, the service and quality of the practice has depleted somewhat, perhaps as a
    result of COVID-19. There are days when my wife and I receive no mail. And there are times when the mail that is ours, is delivered to the house directly south of ours. We in turn, receive the mail intended for the house directly north of us. The mail is one home behind. We have also received mail that is intended for an address that has our same house number, but different street name. The latter has not happened in quite some time.

  8. And some people just prefer and complain about every little thing. It is a lifestyle. Most likely the mail carrier made a mistake once and it is just an unforgivable trespass. Kind of a sad life for chronic complainers.
    I really appreciate Mystics This day in History feature everyday.
    I also appreciate the post offices and mail carriers.

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