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The New York City Post-Office (Part 2)

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

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Congress in those early days was more considerate of the personal comforts of the post-office clerks than at the present time; for, with business that was scarcely worth noticing under the head of “labor,” that deliberative body found heart to pass a solemn act directing “that all letters left at the post a half hour before the time of making up the mail must be forwarded therein.” Therefore, advertised the sagacious Sebastian Bauman, all letters left at the office not conformable with this act will be left over until the next post! The income of the New York post-office the first year (1786) of this most excellent red-tape official was $2789 84; and from this amount, as a starting-point, can be correctly estimated the annual increase of the postal business of New York city.

On the 30th of April, 1789, Washington was inaugurated President, and the establishment of the General Post-office as now organized immediately followed. Samuel Osgood was appointed Postmaster-General, and assumed his duties in the city of New York under the tuition of Sebastian Bauman. What should be done with this important official was evidently a subject of Congressional discussion; for we find officially recorded, that “the Postmaster-General shall not keep any office separate from the one in which the mails arriving in New York are opened and distributed, that he may by his presence prevent irregularities, and rectify mistakes which may occur.” In fact, this now most important officer of the general government, and his solitary assistant and one clerk, then had nothing to do; so they took their first lessons in the service in the post-office of the city of New York. At this time there were throughout the United States seventy-five legally established post-offices and one thousand eight hundred and seventy-five miles of post-office routes.

In a very short time the national capital was transferred to Philadelphia, which had three penny-post carriers when New York had one — suggestive data of the comparative importance of the two cities at that time. The Southern, or Philadelphia, mail left New York daily, the Eastern mail tri-weekly, special mails for New Jersey and Long Island once a week. Mails to Albany were carried on horseback, contractor’s remuneration, “postage collected.”

“Colonel” Sebastian Bauman disappears in 1803; and his successor, Josias Ten Eyck, after what was to the public probably an uneventful year, gave way to General Theodorus Bailey, who received his appointment January 2, 1804, and who satisfactorily performed the duties of his office for nearly a quarter of a century. General Bailey was a gentleman of high standing in the community. He was a member of the House of Representatives two sessions, and a United States Senator in 1803, which position he held one year, and then resigned to assume the duties of postmaster.

The post-office was removed from Broadway by General Bailey, who established it in a house he had purchased, 29 William Street, corner of Garden, now Exchange Place. The building, even at that early day, was considered and spoken of as an “old-fashioned house.” The windows were wide apart, and between the two on the lower story was a narrow door, the entrance of which was protected by a stoop lined with the usual wooden benches. A single dormer-window broke up the monotony of the peaked roof. The window-frame on the left of the door was divided into the novelty of small boxes (now for the first time introduced), one hundred and forty-four in number. The office occupied was twelve feet in width and fifteen deep. The room was so small that it soon became overcrowded, and the increase of the newspaper mail became so great that William Coleman, publisher of the Evening Post, who kept a bookstore corner of William and Wall streets, used to take the accumulated newspapers, generally of an entire week, over to his store, and assort them at his leisure, tying up each distribution with a string, and then sending them back to the post-office to be distributed through the mails.

General Bailey occupied the upper part of the house with his family. In accordance with the custom of those times, between twelve and one o’clock he closed up the lower part of the door and joined his family at dinner. If any parties were delayed by this attention to refreshments, they would, if strangers, reach around, and, seizing hold of the huge lion-headed knocker, make a clatter that could be heard a block away. If the solitary clerk answered this clamor, he generally remarked that the banks closed between twelve and one, and why shouldn’t the post-office? and, with other evidences of dissatisfaction, would dismiss the impatient citizens. But if General Bailey was forced to reply, he would answer the call with the courtliness of an officer of the army associated with General Washington, and he would dismiss the inquirer after written and sealed information with the same old-school bow with which he would have delivered an order from head-quarters or a bouquet to a lady. If any of General Bailey’s personal acquaintances happened to call in an unpropitious hour, and no one was in attendance, they would help themselves, carefully leaving the money for postage on the table, which occupied almost the entire interior of the room.

The establishment of the “embargo” in the year 1807 paralyzed all business, and, of course, seriously affected that of the post-office. >From this time onward for several years there was little that occurred of general interest. It was not until the agitation of the right of the British government to impress seamen sailing under the American flag that New York was aroused from what seemed to be a chronic apathy, and the name of General Bailey, the postmaster, suddenly appears, among others, attached to certain resolutions resenting this monstrous assumption on the part “of the self-styled mistress of the seas.” The war of 1812 followed, and the post-office business continued to suffer. The clerical force, in consequence, was reduced one-third by the dismissal of a junior clerk; Archibald Forrester, one of the two retained, acting occasionally as a volunteer in throwing up earth-works “above King’s Bridge,” and again in superintending laborers engaged in constructing the round fort which still adorns the Battery. Jimmy Mower, the junior clerk, was drafted, but saved his place by hiring a substitute. Thus the post-office took a front rank in the patriotic efforts made to save the national honor. This war excitement had a healthy action on the country; the post-office business began to increase, and from that time steadily developed in importance.

In the summer of 1822 the city was desolated by the yellow fever, and was almost absolutely deserted by its population. The infected district was separated from the outer world by a high board fence, which ran across the city through the line of Duane, and what was then known as Harrison Street. Persons who had the temerity to climb to the top of this barricade relate that in the height of the plague not a living person could be seen. The post-office, for the public accommodation, was moved to Greenwich village, the desks, mail - bags, and all making hardly enough to overcrowd a modern furniture cart. The building temporarily appropriated was a handsome two-story frame house, erected for a bank but not occupied, situated corner of Asylum, now Fourth, and what was subsequently known as Bank Street. The magnificent trees which surrounded the house still have representatives standing in Hammond Street. Between Greenwich village and New York at that time was a vast tract of unoccupied and broken land. Woodcock and snipe “from the Jerseys” still found shelter in the marshes, the waters of which drained through old Canal Street.

When the yellow fever was raging, the rural population of the village, much to their annoyance, found their houses filled with people flying for their lives; these inflictions were borne with patience, since any fears were quieted by liberal pay for shelter; but when the post-office arrived, followed by the fear-stricken clerks, they concluded that disaster had indeed fallen in their midst, and that the letters and those grim road-worn mail-bags were but seeds and depositories of pestilence. With the sharp, biting frost of the latter part of November the post-office was removed back to its old quarters.

In the year 1825 there was an imperative demand for better, or rather for more roomy, accommodations, and the government leased the “Academy Building,” opposite Dr. Matthew’s church in Garden (now Exchange) Street. The free school which had been its occupant for many previous years was under the control of the “Reformed Dutch Consistory.” It was a two-story wooden building, and familiar to the youthful population, and especially “the rising young men,” for they had one and all within its incjosure been more or less severely disciplined in the principles of a useful education, and had been physically invigorated by the virtues of a sound thrashing.

The front of the building had some pretensions to novelty by slight attempts at ornamentation, and the unusual covering of a flat roof. On one side was a small pen, through which was the entrance into the yard, and underneath was a sort of dungeon for the confinement, if so ordered, of fractious boys, whom reason, mingled with Scripture, worldly advice, and birchen rods, had failed to reform. On the opposite side was Postmaster Bailey’s residence, a narrow two-story house, with a single dormer-window, and a cellar in the basement, protected from observation by doors, which, from their propitious angle, formed the “summer sliding-pond” of Young New York.

In this new location two windows were knocked into one, and the acquired space was filled up with nine hundred letter boxes, and, to the astonishment of many, they were soon leased for business purposes. To make every thing satisfactory to the public, General Bailey obtained permission from the government to build a wooden shed over the sidewalk, so that people waiting at the delivery window were protected from the snow and rain. At this time there were eight clerks — W. B. Taylor, Joseph Dodd, George Abell, Courter Goodwin, W. S. Dunham, James Lynch, James Mower, and Charles Forrester. On the 1st of January, 1871, three of these clerks, after forty-five years of faithful service, were still at work, viz., W. B. Taylor, Joseph Dodd, and Charles Forrester - the two last named are all that are leeft of those who were on duty in the first quarter of the century.

In those days the prevailing spirit was one of quiet. There was not apparently even a foreshadowing of the “lightning speed” which is characteristic of every event of this generation; for, thirty or forty years ago, a voyage from Liverpool to New York was “rapid” if accomplished within two months, and quite satisfactory if not prolonged to ninety days. Even after the lapse of this last-mentioned time, there was no anxiety in the minds of self-possessed friends. The vessel, they would say, has met with some accident and put in at Faynl, of Azores or Western Islands, then a sort of half-way station,where ships and passengers alike rested from their fatigues. After repairing sails and cordage, and supplying the exhausted stores of provisions, the good ship and easy-going passengers would renew their slow progress westward, possibly consuming a third of a year in the voyage. It was after one of these “long-drawn-out events,” when the skipper probably consumed more time to get his craft from Sandy Hook to the “Dover Street dock” than is now necessary to make the entire voyage across the Atlantic, that a passenger, evidently born out of his time, so fully realized the misery of the programme that he indignantly, and with some tendency to hyperbole, asserted, “that if all the trees in the world were pens, and all the men in the world scribes, and all the water in the sea ink, they couldn’t explain the calamity of such a voyage.”

There were no telegraphs, no speedy movements by the aid of steam, and consequently nothing of what is now designated newspaper enterprise. As a consequence, the people, even like their Knickerbocker predecessors, depended upon, and were quite satisfied to wait upon, chance for information. A well-known citizen “from the interior,” now designated the “rural districts,” was button-holed (“interviewed,” we would say) under the post-office shed regarding the corn and potato crop of his section. A “Southerner,” or a live sea-captain, or a passenger “just from Europe,” were severally perfect magazines of news. Information thus obtained — if used with spirit — would frequently appear within a week or ten days. here at the post-office was to be met, every pleasant morning, Charles King of the American, Redwood Fisher of the Doug Advertiser, and the pleasantest man of all the press, Major Mordecai Noah of the Gourier, and other distinguished editors, who, having exchanged the ordinary courtesies of the day, would in an oracular manner give utterance to startling political or social observations, the pleasant interlude very likely terminatifig in a practical joke, profanely indulged in by an irreverent bank clerk, or valuable assistant of a popular auctioneer.

But the post-office had among its clerks Jimmy Mower. He was a smart business man, of wonderful capacity for work, and of the most equable good-nature. In addition, he was pretty well read; he boasted that he got his information in connection with his business of distributing the newspapers. One of his jokes grew out of the fact that in the war he was drafted, but, to avoid the responsibility, hired a substitute, who was killed at the famous sortie on Fort Erie, Canada frontier, and consequently that he (Jimmy Mower) had been killed in the service of his country, and that his bones were absolutely whitening on the battle-field. His efforts to get a pension for his heirs and get his post-office pay at the same time proved a puzzler to the best legal minds. The fashion of the times was rather “stately,” but Mower, dead as he was, had life enough in him to amuse his fellow - clerks by sometimes joining in the conversations held under the shed outside of the post-office, and turning what was serious into ridicule. He generally hallooed his remarks through a broken pane of glass, at the same time making his hands almost invisible iu the distribution of mail matter.

He was popular with the crowd, and if he could give the erudite Charles King, or the subtle Redwood Fisher, or the worthy Major Noah what the “boys” termed a “side-winder,” it would set the post-office congregation in a roar. If Jimmy was turned on by some indignant individual who didn’t see his joke, the light-hearted official retreated to the interior of the post-office, leaving the vehement eloquence intended for his head to be expended against the obtruding glass. Colonel Dodd and Charley Forrester, who are still cleiks in the post-office, were great admirers of Jimmy Mower, and they still insist, after forty-five years of serious reflection on the subject, that Mower was the smartest man they ever knew, and that in his fights with “the editors and the big-bugs” he always got the advantage.

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