Financial History 142 Summer 2022 - Page 12

EDUCATORS ’ PERSPECTIVE
Puck cartoon , dated January 22 , 1890 , showing John Wanamaker kneeling in prayer and labeled “ Holy John ” by the paper in his hat . It also includes Puck ’ s classic caricature of President Benjamin Harrison with “ Grandpa ’ s ” written on the right feather in his hat .
He brought that same entrepreneurial spirit and drive into the Postmaster General ’ s office . After a rough start , when he adhered to the spoils system and fired thousands of Democratic postmasters ( replacing them with Republicans ), Wanamaker settled down to work and became , in the words of Post Office historian Winifred Gallagher , “ one of the nation ’ s most gifted Postmasters General .”
Wanamaker not only reorganized the Post Office to make it run more efficiently , he also set the course of postal innovation for decades to come . During his term as Postmaster General ( 1889 – 1893 ), Wanamaker successfully expanded the postal money order system , which gave postal patrons a convenient way to pay for goods ordered through the mail . In a mere 12 months , the number of post offices offering money order services jumped from 12,000 to 18,000 . He also began the profitable practice of issuing commemorative stamps on a regular basis and created a system that offered promotions to postal employees based on merit alone .
Wanamaker also proposed several initiatives that never came to fruition while he was in office including rural free delivery ( RFD ), parcel post and a postal savings bank . RFD brought mail to people wherever they lived , eliminating the need to travel to a post office to pick up mail . Although Wanamaker initiated a successful pilot program for RFD , it was not officially implemented on a national scale until 1902 .
Before parcel post became a reality in 1913 , the Post Office would not accept any package weighing more than four pounds . Wanamaker , influenced by European postal practices , urged Congress to allow the Post Office to enter the parcel post business but was opposed by Wells Fargo , American Express and other private express companies . However , on January 1 , 1913 , after congressional approval was finally attained , Wanamaker sent the first parcel post package to President Taft . 4
Finally , Wanamaker realized that many Americans did not trust banks and hoarded their meager savings . He proposed a postal savings bank for small depositors whose deposits would be guaranteed by the federal government . This would release hoarded funds into the economy and pay interest to depositors ; it was a win-win situation for all . However , the postal savings bank did not gain congressional approval until 1910 . Initially , deposits earned a 2 % interest rate , and the savings bank eventually attracted over four million depositors at the bank ’ s peak in the late 1940s .
Despite the initial outcry and criticism , Wanamaker proved to be one of the ablest Postmaster Generals in our nation ’ s history . Although he was continually frustrated by the slow-moving political process , his brief four years at the helm of the Post Office began an era of innovation and efficiency that continued well beyond his tenure .
Brian Grinder is a professor at Eastern Washington University and a member of Financial History ’ s editorial board . Dr . Dan Cooper is the president of Active Learning Technologies .
Notes
1 . Overacker writes , “ During the sixties , seventies , and early eighties the money collected by Republican congressional committees came largely from employees of the United States government . In 1878 this committee collected $ 106,000 , $ 80,000 of which came from persons holding appointive positions in the public service . The contributions requested ranged from one to three percent of the salary of the officeholder and an intensive ‘ follow-up ’ campaign made it extremely difficult for the victim to escape .” ( p . 102 )
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