Go West, Young Mailman! I want to tell you a story not directly related to Postcards to Voters. It's a story about gold, the American West and "postal geography" throughout history. But first let me explain why I'm telling you this story. I have stumbled upon an interesting visualization that maps the spread of the postal network from ninteenth-century until today. I will show you this visualization later on. Not only is it interesting to watch, but also sheds light on an often overlooked but clearly central aspect of westward expansion - the nation’s postal network. The creator of the visualization, Cameron Blevins, wrote a corresponding book called Paper Trails that dives even deeper into the topic on how the U.S. Post shaped development in the West. 

 Post Office San Francisco 1849 Gold Rush

A San Francisco post office in 1849. PHOTO: SARIN IMAGES/THE GRANGER COLLECTION

In the beginning there was gold..

That’s usually how the story of the West starts: with a gold nugget pulled out of a California river in 1848. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills set off a global stampede to California. Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, the western United States underwent a truly dramatic reorganization of people, land, capital, and resources. It had taken Anglo-Americans the better part of two hundred years to occupy the eastern half of the continent, yet they occupied the West within a single generation. The postal system played a crucial role in keeping settlers in the West connected to relatives back East as well as to merchants in nearby towns. If rumors of rich ore triggered a stampede to a remote mining camp, the Post Office Department was expected to serve the location right away. As millions of settlers moved into the West, they relied on
letters and newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, petitions and money orders to stay connected to the wider world.

Fun Fact: There were five times as many post offices in the United States in 1899 than there are McDonald's restaurants today.

So, here is the visualization I have been talking about. Have fun watching!

US Post Expansion Post Offices

Visualization and data by Cameron Blevins and Jason Heppler. Find out more here: Geography of the Post. Dataset contains 166,140 post offices that operated in the United States between 1639 and 2000.

 

July 27, 2021 — Jannik Blecher