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Technology could make Saturday mail delivery obsolete

September 05, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

If it pains you that, artistically speaking, the blue-collar murals inside the Hagerstown post office do not match the building's classical facade, blame George Biddle.

If it pains you that the postal service might soon scale back to five-day-a-week delivery, blame -- well, our intolerance for pain.

Seventy years have passed since Frank Long painted "Transportation of the Mail," a three-panel mural that to some is most notable for the fact that the railroad mail sorters are equipped with sidearms.

But the eras, then and now, were not entirely different.

In the early part of the last century, Americans had become obsessed with art, a pastime that crashed right along with the 1929 stock markets.

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Commercial art galleries shut their doors nationwide and a government commission wrote in 1933 that for an overwhelming majority of the American people, the fine arts "do not exist."

Artist George Biddle saw a problem. And an opportunity. He talked FDR, a former classmate, into adding one more work program to the growing list of government-aided employment. It became known as the Treasury Relief Art Project, or TRAP -- not to be confused with TARP.

Through TRAP, artists would descend on gray public buildings like so many brush-wielding pigeons and, it was hoped, reignite the public's passion for art. An enthusiastic Treasury official wrote, "If we can create the demand for beauty in our lives, our slums will go. The ugliness will be torn down and beauty will take its place."

If he seems to have gotten a bit carried away, just write it off as a post office tradition. Free mail deliveries originally were authorized in 1863 (before that, folks had to pick up their mail at the post office or pay for delivery) in cities under the condition that, get this, the postage would be sufficient to pay for the program in its entirety.

The nation's 1891 entry into Rural Free Delivery -- the nation's first rural route was across the river in Charles Town, W.Va. -- probably sealed the reality that the post office would be profitable again at about the same time that America tore down its slums.

Today, the post office says it could save $3.5 billion annually by ending Saturday delivery, something that probably should have been done on the day in which the first e-mail was sent.

If this seems to be sacrilege, consider that the reduction of delivery is nothing new. In the busiest districts of the busiest cities, mail once was delivered up to nine times a day. In 1905, letter carriers in Baltimore made seven daily deliveries.

As the century progressed, several attempts to end Saturday delivery were beaten down by public outcry -- as today's health care debate reinforces, loudness very often is inversely proportional to soundness.

A budget crisis in 1957 caused the Postmaster General to declare there would be no more Saturday deliveries, and indeed, on Saturday, April 13, 1957, there was no mail. Three days later, President Eisenhower, reacting to public displeasure, urged Congress to cough up enough money to reinstate Saturday delivery.

In the 1980s, the post office again was in financial trouble and again the idea of five-day delivery was floated. The reaction of Congress was classic. In 1983, it began attaching riders to annual postal funding mandating Saturday delivery.

Let there be no doubt about our fiscal irresponsibility, they seemed to be saying.

In fairness, fax and e-mail ubiquity still were a few years away, but today, the logic for Saturday delivery is all but gone. Checks can be directly deposited, any child can make a PDF and any grandmother can receive a picture of the grandkids that was snapped 30 seconds earlier. Saturday delivery, once a testament to the urgency of communication is now a victim of it.

Since 1977, the post office has recognized that e-mail and fax technologies eventually would gut first-class mail revenue. It now is a reality, and this year, the office will be $7 billion in the red. What cell phones did to the once-common phone booth, technology will do to Saturday delivery.

We'll miss them both, but only in a vague, nostalgic way. Anything that's important can reach our ears in a matter of seconds, not days. And anything that's not important can wait until Monday.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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