On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females

I just finished reading Cameron Blevins’ new book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, which I learned a lot from (see my full notes and quotes from the book below).

One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.

This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”

All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day.

I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.

Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.

Notes & Quotes

  • “The spread of the nation’s postal system during the second half of the 19th century shaped the history of the region, knitting the American west into a national system of communications.”
  • “The US Post was the underlying spatial circuitry of western expansion.”
  • Took American settlers almost 200 years to occupy eastern half of US; took about 30 for the west between 1860s-90s
  • “Despite the popular ‘Wild West’ narrative of self-reliant cowboys and pioneers, the real history of the region is one of big government: public land and national parks, farming subsidies and grazing permits, military bases and defense contracts. Arguably no other part of the United States has been so profoundly shaped by ‘the state’.”
  • On lack of US Post history: “When something is everywhere, it can start to become invisible. … It is easy to take for granted both the journeys themselves and the infrastructure that made them possible.”
  • In 1889 there were around 59,000 post offices in US and 400,000 miles of mail routes; 2.5x and 3x more than any other country respectively
  • In the west US Post was “at its most sprawling, fast moving, and ephemeral” compared to more stable east
  • Lots of postmaster turnover in late 19th century due to political turnover and spoils system
  • Post Office Department dependent on local part-time private agents and companies to graft mail service onto a preexisting private infrastructure rather than starting from scratch everywhere; “gossamer network” unstable and fleeting but flexible and wide-reaching [reminds me of today’s gig economy companies like Uber, Postmates, etc.]
  • Railway Mail Service was centrally managed, bureaucratic arrangement that worked in tandem with looser local agents
  • Diffuse administrative structure of agency model challenges assumption of state power as an inherently centralized entity
  • Western postal system dominated by local demands, conditions, politics, and actors; Congress would rubber-stamp requests for new mail routes and Post Office would get them up and running with minimal oversight
  • Postal network lacked intentionality, top-down planning, and centralized coordination; allowed for expansion far greater than more cautious and regulated countries
  • “Without the US Post’s expansive network, the pace of settler colonization would have been slower, its reach more limited, and its prosecution more difficult.”
  • Fewer than 2,000 post offices in west before Civil War due to indigenous tribes blocking expansion (Lakota, Ute, Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache)
  • Topographer’s Office within Post Office Department began creating regional postal maps during Civil War; led by professional specialized civil servants as unofficial and neglected project initially
  • Two cartographic stages: capturing space (layout and drawing) was “gentlemen’s work” and capturing time (keeping up to date and coloring routes by frequency) was “ladies’ work” and thus far underpaid
  • Female “colorists” made up 2/3 of Post Office employees by end of 1870s; forefront of women into federal workforce
  • Coloring routes made maps useful but was challenging to keep up to date (“bringing up the diagrams”): “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”
  • “Postal maps were an exercise in capturing transience.”
  • Government’s gridded land survey maps imposed spatial order to legitimize state’s authority; ephemeral postal maps didn’t project mastery or control but “a state that was squinting to make out what was actually happening on the ground”
  • Pony Express started in 1860 as publicity stunt by freighting firm to secure gov’t contract for mail; lots of overhead and high cost for mail and contract didn’t come, so sold after 19 months
  • Territorial seizures of 1840s greatly expanded land needing postal service (annexation of Texas in 1845, Oregon Treaty of 1846, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848)
  • Legislation in 1840s dramatically lowered price of postage, severing relationship between price and geography in favor of universal rates
  • Progressive mission of providing accessible and reliable mail service to all citizens clashed with realities of territorial expansion
  • Transcontinental railroad completion in 1869 greatly reduced cross-country delivery times from almost a month to 6 days
  • “Last mile” problem for most of west, which wasn’t yet near railroads
  • Codependent, public/private relationship between federal government and stagecoach industry
  • Post offices often at literal crossroads of towns and social orbit; “Arguably no other institution was so embedded in the everyday lives of so many different people.”
  • Lots of battles over location since most post offices were housed inside postmaster’s own business or residence; boon for business
  • Even for Gilded Age anti-monolopists, the post office was held as exemplar of “natural monopoly” because it was so central to public good; key appeals:
    • Didn’t discriminate based on distance unlike telegraph, railroad, or express companies
    • Explicitly tilted in favor of rural and Western areas and away from financial powers in the East
    • Gave local communities a say in public services via PO locations; tied to democratic process
  • 1883’s Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act set up framework for more regulated bureaucratic system but didn’t apply to postmasters; regular partisan purges until 1910s
  • “The sheer size of the US Post and its deep well of patronage positions shielded it from civil-service reform, and in an era of razor-thin electoral margins, political parties were loath to give up such a powerful partisan tool.”
  • “The Post Office benefited from a national network of politicians who were far more familiar with local affairs than officials in Washington. This allowed them to maintain a massive workforce of part-time agents scattered across the countryside with a comparatively small workforce of centralized administrators.”
  • Money orders began in 1864; popular (esp. with Union soldiers), self-sustaining from fees, efficient, though not universal service
  • In 1892, under Benjamin Harrison’s postmaster John Wanamaker, PO expanded residential delivery, bolstered railway mail, and extended previously limited money order system to thousands more communities
  • Mail-order companies Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, along with other catalog business, benefited from subsidized/discounted advertising in newspapers, mailing catalogs, and money orders
  • Number of POs: 75 in 1789, 76,946 in 1901 (peak), fewer than 28,000 in 2000
  • Rural Free Delivery (RFD) established in 1902; shifted away from post office to residence, benefiting rural populations but superseding local postmasters
  • Wanamaker an eastern department store magnate but self-described “country boy” who initiated RFD in 1891; sputtered throughout administration turnover
  • RFD more regulated than POs; required inspection and approval before beginning
  • Taft and Wilson issued executive orders strengthening civil service protections and regulations for postmasters

3 responses to “On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females”

  1. Patrick Clawson Avatar
    Patrick Clawson

    Oh, I have got to get a copy of this book! I would be surprised if Bertha Estelle (Clawson) Terhune did not get some mention as the first female postmistress in the Wyoming Territory. My 2nd cousin, once removed, Peggy Terhune, is currently writing a book about her grandmother, and I may have to refer her to this as source material.

    1. I don’t recall mention of Bertha, but given the huge territory the book covers—both in time and space—I’m sure there are tons of stories and people that just didn’t fit within the narrative.

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