The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum today launched a new virtual exhibition, “America’s Mailing Industry,” telling the story of the partnership between the U.S. Postal Service and private industry, who together have helped American citizens and businesses communicate and conduct business for more than 200 years.
It is the story of a partnership that helps people shop, ship, deliver, communicate and conduct transactions, gain information, seek entertainment, build relationships, enhance communities and foster citizenship.
The mailing industry consists of all those that communicate with customers and constituents through the U.S. Mail on a large scale—from direct marketers, to publishers, to nonprofits, to public entities—as well as all the businesses that help prepare mail, such as ad agencies, print shops, software vendors and transportation providers.
The partnership between the mailing industry and the postal system is a critical part of the American economy, as its total economic value exceeds $1 trillion and it employs almost 8 million people.
At the heart of the mailing industry is the U.S. Postal Service, which has delivered for America for more than two centuries. An explosion of mail in the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove the Post Office Department (through post offices) and large-volume mailers to work together to begin to handle mail more efficiently. Mailers used new methods of paying for postage, which reduced mail handling by postal clerks and enabled the presorting of mail by destination, speeding dispatch and delivery. Mail volume continued to grow to such an extent that by the 1960s it threatened to overwhelm post offices when deposited in bulk by businesses at the end of each work day. This pushed the Post Office Department to embark on a concerted, nationwide campaign to enlist the aid of large mailers in leveling out the daily “mountains” of mail. So began a unique public–private partnership, unprecedented in scope and scale, which continues to this day.
“America’s mailing industry is quite possibly the most successful government–private sector partnership in our nation’s history,” said Allen Kane, director of the museum. “We are excited to tell this story, as most people don’t even know the industry exists.”
In order to present a comprehensive and understandable look at the complex and vast world that is America’s mailing industry, the museum partnered with researchers and experts from the U.S. Postal Service, mailing-industry associations and private companies to present stories of success and service to American consumers and businesses. The virtual exhibition offers stories of the mailing industry that focus on how companies, entrepreneurs and multigenerational family businesses, in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service, have helped to create and enhance commerce and communications channels throughout American history.
In order to enhance this comprehensive story, the National Postal Museum invites companies and organizations that are part of America’s mailing industry to submit their stories. These stories will provide additional resources to this important research project, allowing industry members to chronicle their histories to be viewed by National Postal Museum website visitors. Submitted stories will be subject to Smithsonian curatorial review and museum guidelines created for the project. (The National Postal Museum has limited resources, so the publication of stories will not be immediate. Rather, stories will be reviewed and published as soon as feasibly possible.)
Future plans include the design and construction of an on-site physical “America’s Mailing Industry” exhibition at the museum.