All Things Shipping
Jul 3, 2020

Historical Shipping and Delivery Stories

As we all get ready to break out the barbecues and coolers for a very different kind of Fourth of July this year, we thought it might be fun to share a few historical bits about shipping and other forms of delivery throughout our history. So grab a cold one, find a cozy chair, and read on. 

Shipping, the Navigation Acts, and the Boston Tea Party

In the 1660s, the Navigation Acts were passed by Britain, and directed early American colonists to buy their manufactured goods from England only—goods that were shipped to them on British vessels. As part of this Act, American colonists also needed to buy more from England than what they sold to them and then make up the difference in value by paying out silver and gold. The 1663 Staples Act placed even more limitations on how colonists could buy and sell goods–which ultimately led to what we now call the Boston Tea Party.

This event, led by fed-up colonists on December 16, 1773, was a protest against laws imposed on them—and involved dumping 342 chests of tea that were shipped to them by the British East India Company into the harbor.

In other words, shipped goods and the laws and circumstances surrounding them played a central role in the first act of defiance that led to the Revolutionary War and, ultimately, to the formation of the United States of America.

Two Different Revolutionary War Rides

During the war, message delivery was a key part of military strategy and success, with history preserving Paul Revere’s ride—an event that has been romanticized over time. Revere was an employee of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and his job was to deliver news and important documents.

On the evening of April 18, 1775, Revere needed to share that British troops were coming, and he asked a friend to help him with a Plan B. Because it was possible that Revere wouldn’t be able to successfully deliver the message in person, his friend would put two lanterns in the Christ Church tower to share that the British were coming by sea. If they’d planned to come by land, the signal would be one lantern.

Revere then went to the waterfront where two friends rowed him across the river, past a British warship, to Charlestown. He then shared his insights and confirmed that they’d seen the backup message: the two lanterns.

Revere then borrowed a horse, one he’d have to strategically ride to avoid capture. He ended up needing to change his route and, on the revised one, shared the news with a local militia captain. He finally arrived in Lexington, Massachusetts after midnight, where he informed John Adams and John Hancock of the impending British arrival. 

Women Heroes and Pioneers

Sybil Ludington was a 16-year-old young woman whose father joined the colonists in their bid for freedom in 1773. On April 26, 1777, Colonel Ludington was told that Danbury, Connecticut was under attack and in need of assistance. The man who delivered the message was exhausted and the colonel needed to focus on battle plans—so Sybil rode through the rainy night and dark woods to deliver the message in an effort to rally other colonists to the cause. While the battle was ultimately lost, in the end, Sybil Ludington had helped amass hundreds of soldiers to join the fight. She is often referred to as the “female Paul Revere.”

Here’s some shipping history trivia: the first U.S. Postmaster General was chosen on July 26, 1775—and his name may be familiar to you: Benjamin Franklin. He received $1,000 a year for his work and was given an extra $340 to pay a secretary/comptroller. He was responsible for all of the post offices and could hire as many postmasters as he thought were necessary.

There were several women who held the postmaster position during the colonial years—Sarah Updike Goddard and Lydia Hill—and, although women were sometimes called “postmistresses,” they were officially “postmasters,” just like their male counterparts. Goddard may have gotten the job in Providence, Rhode Island because she took on duties assigned to her son, William, who moved to New York and then to Philadelphia, where he had a newspaper and print shop business. Lydia Hill, meanwhile, served as the Salem, Massachusetts postmaster for years before she died in 1768.

A few years later, Mary Katherine Goddard (William’s sister) also served as postmaster in Baltimore, and was the first person to publish the Declaration of Independence. She ran her own bookstore and published a newspaper, The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser.

Presidential Postman

On May 7, 1833, a 24-year-old man was named postmaster for New Salem, Illinois, a term that lasted for just over three years before the office closed on May 30, 1836. He was paid $55.70 for the year of 1835. Plus, as a bonus, he could send and receive his own personal letters for free, and even get a daily newspaper, delivered at no cost.

His name was Abraham Lincoln and the mail at the office he managed arrived once a week. Typically, people picked up their own; but, if they didn’t, Lincoln would often put the mail in his hat and personally deliver it to the addressees.

Although a later president, Harry Truman, was appointed to a postmaster position on December 2, 1914, he didn’t actually serve in this position. Instead, he gave the Grandview, Missouri job, and associated salary to a widow named Ella Hall who needed the money. So, although two future presidents were named postmaster, only one of them—Honest Abe—directly did the work.

Beginnings of Diversity at the Post Office

In 1863, the first African-American man was hired as a postal clerk in 1863. It happened in Boston, Massachusetts, and this made William Cooper Nell the federal government’s first known African-American civilian employee. His supervisor, John Palfrey, hired numerous other African American clerks through 1867. In April 1873, Nell wrote in a letter that he was putting through “Night mails,” making his shift 11pm to 5:30am He also noted that he never missed a day of work during his postal career, “from sickness or any cause.” Nell continued to work at the Boston Post Office until he died in 1874.

Born in 1816 and excelling in school, Nell later became associated with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He ultimately wrote for Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, sharing the “challenges and achievements of Boston’s African-American community and devoting himself to emancipation and civil rights.”

He fought hard to desegregate Boston’s public schools, which helped lead to a state law in 1855 that prohibited racial discrimination when deciding who could attend public schools. That same year, he published The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, the first which turned out to be the first history book published by an African-American man.

Expanding West: The Pony Express

As people began heading westward—during the 1847 Mormon exodus to Utah and 1849 Gold Rush, for example—fast, reliable mail service was clearly needed. To address that, the Butterfield Overland Mail Service was founded in 1857 and other private carrier systems were started.

In April 1860, the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company was created at the cost of $70,000, and became known as the Pony Express. If you were looking for a job in the postal industry in those days, you could get paid $50 per month with the Pony Express. And, with a postal delivery system with more than 100 stations, plenty of people were needed to ride the 400 to 500 horses that delivered the mail. Horses were exchanged every 10 to 15 miles and riders took over from one another every 75 to 100 miles. At the average speed of ten miles per hour, 75 horses and several riders were needed for a typical trip.

When the first delivery was scheduled, it was a time of great excitement, with citizens flooding the streets, bands playing music, and fireworks being shot off. That first delivery contained 49 letters, five telegrams, and “miscellaneous papers.” When that first rider was ready to begin, a cannon was fired.

Once a telegram system was established from New York City to Sacramento, California in October 1861, though, everyone on the Pony Express lost their jobs, with new technology taking over.

Book Deliveries by Horseback

During the Great Depression, it could be challenging enough for many people to get their basic needs met. Plus, in some of the more poverty-stricken areas, nearly a third of the people couldn’t read, which limited their abilities to improve their situations. Eastern Kentucky in 1930 was in this situation.

Enter the librarians.  

In 1913, a librarian named May Stafford had already tried to get enough money to deliver books by horseback but could only maintain that for a year. In 1934, though, a “packhorse library” was formed. Books were stored in post offices and in churches, with librarians packing books for carriers who used horses or mules to deliver the books, even in frozen conditions of the winter.

A carrier often rode 100 to 120 miles on a week’s trip, going out at least twice a month. One horseback-riding librarian was named Nan Milan. She delivered books for children who lived in the mountains and earned about $28 per month. When books became too worn down to circulate, the librarians put the good pages and pictures into binders and took those to people. They also shared recipes and otherwise focused on improving their standard and quality of living.


Explore Shippo for an e-commerce shipping solution that is both convenient and cost-effective.

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Kelly Boyer Sagert
is a full-time freelance writer living in the Cleveland area. Her range of expertise spans business, finance, logistics, automotive, e-commerce and more.

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