What a 19th century post office reform teaches us about urban innovation

At the turn of the 20th century, the postal system was the internet of its time. Mail was the way ideas and information spread across America’s long distances before telephones arrived on the scene.

In the 1800s, the US Postal Service (USPS) was the largest civilian bureaucracy of its time but mired in the incompetence of the “spoils” system, when hiring was made based on patronage and favor. But in 1883, the US Congress passed the Pendelton Act, leading to a number of improvements to US government agencies, including the postal service: faster mail delivery times, fewer errors, and lower costs.  The first wave of reforms came to 23 cities, eventually spreading to more than 500).


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