BOOK REVIEW: ‘Paper Trails’ – Washington Times

Twenty-seven years ago, the U.S. Postal Service opened a new post office building in Mesquite, Nevada, a city of just under 21,000 some 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Apart from a plaque at the entrance denoting its construction in 1994, the facility isn’t much different from thousands of others in the United States today.

This wasn’t always the case, as historian Cameron Blevins points out in “Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West.” From the mid-1800s to well past the turn of the century, postal operations were highly political, semi-privatized, and provided what the author calls a “gossamer network” of outlets uniting a diverse and sometimes unstable frontier.

In the 19th century, Western U.S. post offices were more likely to be in someone’s general store or living room as to have a freestanding building maintained at government expense. Mr. Blevins, a history professor at the University of Colorado—Denver, traces the expansion of mail service into the region as the nation’s population fanned out in search of peace and prosperity.

Postmasters‚ at least the ones running a mail station from home or a storefront, had to put up a surety bond with two guarantors, along with an appointment generally arranged by a congressman. This made the jobs highly political, subject to turnover as control of the federal government alternated between Democratic and Republican presidents during the 1880s and 1890s.

Coupled with the infamous “spoils system” in which cronyism often outranked competence, the 1883 enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act should have cleaned up such matters. Yet six years later, the appointment of department store mogul John Wanamaker as postmaster general set off a tenure in which he fired some 30,000 postal workers, including local postmasters, earning the ire of Democrats who took over Congress midway during President Benjamin Harrison’s term.

Throughout the ups-and-downs of Western expansion, the mail network, which Mr. Blevins dubbed “US Post,” stretched and retrenched with the lifecycles of mining towns, territorial expansion, and shifting political fortunes. Party affiliation didn’t always help bring a post office or specific services such as Rural Free Delivery, which expanded delivery-to-the-doorstep far beyond urban carriers. In the case of RFD service as well as postal money orders—a low-cost way of remitting small sums safely over distances — strict standards had to be met before an RFD route would be granted, or an “agency” post office could sell money orders.

Throughout “Paper Trails” we are introduced to a vast array of characters, from cartographer Walter Nicholson, who made the Post Office Department’s Topographical Office a force to be reckoned with; to Charles Macdonald whose Money Order Department made a profit, a postal rarity even then; to general store owner Walter Mobley, also the part-time postmaster of North Bloomfield, California, some 75 miles from Sacramento and a boom town already in decline.

Through their stories and those of the customers and far-away merchants who sold goods by mail order, we get a picture of the West that explains the day-to-day struggles of people in a growing, but not yet matured, landscape. Before Rural Free Delivery, sending or receiving mail in the small towns and settlements of the west meant a trip to the post office. Without postal money orders, express firms such as Wells, Fargo & Co. could charge exorbitant fees to move funds across country, including charges based on how far the money would travel.

Mr. Blevins maps this out — often with the aid of computer-driven research and map plotting — and bringing to life the lesser-known aspects of Western history and development. His explanation of why a long-defunct Sacramento department store was able to beat Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward for the hearts and dollars of mail order customers brings to light an era before the Post Office Department’s parcel post service made shipping mail-order merchandise across country a reasonable proposition.

“Paper Trails” does a great job of bringing what might seem dull post office history to life in explaining much about the growth of 19th century life and business in the Western U.S. One philatelic critic has pointed out several serious postal history questions about the book’s descriptions of some mail functions and rules, but Mr. Blevins (ironically via email) said he sought not to create a philatelic reference, but instead a scholarly book about the West’s history.

In that latter quest, the author roundly succeeds. His reconstruction of these often-bypassed avenues of American history not only taught this reader quite a bit, it makes one want to learn more of the people behind what happened. “Paper Trails” is the kind of book that will, I believe, spark greater interest in less familiar aspects of the American story, and for that, Mr. Blevins deserves thanks.

• Mark A. Kellner, a national reporter for The Washington Times, is also a life member of the American Philatelic Society.

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PAPER TRAILS: THE US POST AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN WEST

By Cameron Blevins

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 248 pages 

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