Arago: Exhibits

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A Postal Push for Rural Delivery

John Wanamaker Painting

Postmaster General John Wanamaker

One vocal supporter of rural delivery was President Benjamin Harrison’s postmaster general, John Wanamaker. The Philadelphia department store magnate served as postmaster general from 1889 to 1893. Wanamaker was unable to raise much support for the new service in Congress, even after he ordered the Post Office Department to test the service briefly on its own in 1891. In his Annual Report to Congress, Wanamaker argued that there was a great need for free mail service to rural Americans. The current system, he noted, “obliges people to go or send for mail, and that means, in the winter or stormy seasons, and for families of aged people, the depredation of going w/out letters & periodicals (hardly less valuable) that lie in post offices for long periods not called for. We shall look back with astonishment before many years that the present system had to be suffered so long.”

Wanamaker argued the tests showed support for the service, Congressional opponents declared the results inconclusive. Some questioned Wanamaker's motives. Opponents raised fears that Wanamaker only wanted the service to build a wide scale customer base for a mail-order service in his family’s store. With Grover Cleveland’s rise to the presidency in 1893, Wanamaker was replaced by Cleveland’s former law partner, Wilson S. Bissell. Neither Bissell nor Cleveland supported free mail delivery to rural Americans. Cleveland even called the idea a “crazy scheme.”