Albany’s Postal Service

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices and postal roads. Ben Franklin was one of the geniuses behind creation of the U.S. Post Office (USPO), and served as the Post Master General during the Revolutionary War. The Post Office was seen as a critical element to bind the separate colonies together, facilitate interstate commerce and form as “more perfect Union”.

By the time Washington became president there were 75 post offices in America. Many of the major highways we know today were maintained as “Post Roads”. U.S. Route 9 from Albany to NYC was known as the “Albany Post Road”. Mail from major cities was usually delivered to Albany twice a week by contracted Post Riders by the late 1700s. In more remote areas mail was sent with whomever was making the next trip to the city. A farmer could leave a letter at the local tavern in the hope that someone would be going to Albany in the near future. In cities like Albany the PO might be located in a city hall, at that time on Broadway near State St. in the heart of the small city. Or the city’s Postmaster might have been a prominent grocer or inn keeper. We simply don’t know. That’s where the mail was left when it came from Boston, NYC, Hartford, Saratoga, Bennington, etc. And that’s where recipients had to go to retrieve their mail.

William Winne – the Penny Postman

Enter the “Penny Postman”. In Albany it was William Winne. Mr. Winne was the city’s penny postman, and a well known figure on Albany streets for about 4 decades. You could enter into an agreement with Mr. Winne, and he would pick up and deliver your mail for for a couple of cents a letter. Someone m gu, created a silhouette of Mr. Winne that became synonymous with the Penny Postman for centuries.

William Winne

As the city grew more contract postal carriers went into business.

The Exchange Building

And then came Albany’s population explosion following the opening of the Erie Canal. A more “official” PO located in the newly built Exchange Building on the corner of State St. and Broadway was opened. By now there were PO boxes. And if you didn’t use the services of a paid postman you could find your name on a list published in a newspaper that told you there was mail to be picked up. (The newspaper listings were divided between male and female names.. which I never understood.) And so the PO remained with some improvements.

Exchange Building on right

Postage stamps were first issued in 1847, but until 1856 other methods of payment were legal. And mail from other cities arrived by train and boat to downtown. By the 1840s the use of the telegraph expanded people’s ability to communicate, but as the country grew government funded mail delivery was still critical.

Civil War

The Civil War was the catalyst for major changes. Millions of men went to war, and boys sent letters home to Mom and Mom sent letters and cookies and hams to their sons. Mail volume grew exponentially. So there were major improvements. In Albany the most important was the creation of a paid postal carrier service. Initially there were 5 Albany “post men”. All Civil War vets. This was before the age of the civil service merit system, so these jobs were patronage positions. (My grandmother’s Uncle Charlie had served bravely at Gettysburg – so he got one of the jobs.)

Federal Building

By 1880 the Albany PO moved into the new Federal Building which took the place of the old Exchange Building. (Today it houses admin offices of SUNY Central.)

Federal Building on corner of State St. and Broadway

As the country expanded west settlers in far flung settlements sometimes had to travel for days to collect mail at the “County Seat”. For a brief time the legendary Pony Express filled the gap, traveling where there were no railroads. And private companies like Wells Fargo and American Express used railroads and stage coaches to ship the mail and packages, began in the 1840s and 1850s. It’s worth noting that men from Albany, including one former postmaster were involved in the founding of these companies. In Albany County small spur railroads delivered the mail into villages like Slingerlands and Voorheeseville that had their own tiny post offices.

Rural Free Delivery

In 1896 a new service of the USPO changed America. Rural free delivery was enacted by Congress. It ensured those who lived in rural areas would get their mail delivered to their homes without schlepping into the closest village. (Over half of the US population still lived outside cities at the time.)

Rural Free delivery in West Albany

And so when it came to selection of a site for the new Union Station by the New York Central Railroad it had to be next to Post Office. If you look carefully at old photos and postcards you can see the mail wagons on RR mail platforms and chutes from the PO from above with large bags of mail.

Mail bags on platform at Union Station

Parcel Post

The next innovation in 1913 changed America again- Parcel Post. For years private carriers had charged exorbitant fees to deliver packages. With the advent of the new service new markets opened to city merchants. Whitney’s and Myer’s Department stores on North Pearl could reach homemakers in Preston Hollow and Coeymans. Even women in the city could see an ad in the newspaper, and write a letter or make a phone call to order a new blouse or a table cloth. And it could be delivered within a day or so. Business boomed. (Mr. Sears, who by now had bought out Mr. Roebuck, made a fortune with his catalog – Amazon 1.0.)

Governor Sulzer’s wife accepts Parcel Post package
Mail order dept. Albany Hardware and Iron, State St.

Airmail

Regular airmail in Albany began in the mid 1920s, and flying of mail at night in 1930 after the new airport was built in Colonie. And so we had the framework of the USPO we know today.

Albany’s Art Deco Post Office

The last major change in Albany was the building of a new federal building on Broadway in the early 1930s. (Today it houses the Foley Courthouse.) The Post Office was on the first floor. It was an Art Deco marvel. It was housed in a huge space -all marble, glass and brass with beautiful ceiling murals. It almost felt like you were in a church or a great museum.

Interior of old Post Office, now the Foley Court House

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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