The U.S. Postal Inspection Service


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Post Office Inspector chest badge, c. 1900

The history of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service begins with the formation of the new nation. The first Surveyor General of Post Roads William Goddard was appointed on August 7, 1775 under the Second Continental Congress. The duties of the surveyor helped to ensure the efficiency and security of mail routes. By 1830 an office was set aside for the Post Office Department’s special agents. However, before the Civil War, there were few agents available to cover the vastly expanding postal territories. Agents, especially those out west, complained about the Department’s slowness in everything from updates of postal regulations to financial reimbursements. There was also a distrust of agents at a time when political parties often used public office as a partisan tool. Postmaster General Jacob Collamer wrote in 1850 that the public believed that inspectors, “while professionally employed in public service, are in fact busy as political emissaries, and in the propagation of party doctrines.”(1) A number of postal employees, inspectors included, used their positions to advance a political party’s needs, but fortunately for the mail, inspectors’ duties in guarding the mail and ensuring optimum operations across the country left little time to be at the beck and call of partisan politicians.

Before the Civil War the inspectors were spread thin across the nation, with only 16 inspectors on the job in 1860. During the war, that number tripled. The number jumped again after President Grant signed legislation in 1873 that added a variety of new criminal acts under the inspectors’ jurisdiction. The law, pushed and named for Anthony Comstock, used the Post Office Department to fight obscenity, lotteries, medical quackery, and a host of other ills when the mail was used as part of the crime. The number of inspectors began to rise again.

In 1880, a congressional act changed the title from special agent of the Post Office Department to post office inspector. By 1897, one hundred inspectors were busy keeping the mails safe. Fifteen years later, there were almost four hundred.

Inspectors’ duties at the turn of the 20th century were vast. William Vickery, Chief Inspector of the service noted in 1905: “an inspector’s territory has practically no bounds. He is a traveling auditor [and] a postal expert, to decide where an office should be located, how fitted up on how many clerks or carriers it may need. He passes on postmasters’ bonds, negotiates leases for post office premises . . . he displaces postmasters and sometimes must assume control of the office himself. . . . finding the criminal and evidence to convict him . . . he inquires[sic] into all things that demand personal attention and handles many cases where the property, position, reputation, or even the liberty of a citizen is affected by his report.”(2)

  1. Jacob Collamer, Special Agent Circular, October 8, 1850, p. 1.
  2. Post Office Department, 1905 Annual Report of the Postmaster General (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906) p. 148.
railway clerks loading mail on the train

In 1869, special agents (i.e., inspectors) began supervising the mail and clerks on the new Railway Mail Service (RMS) cars. Inspectors were responsible for ensuring that every aspect of the Railway Mail Service was functioning at its highest and most secure level, including moving the mail on and off the trains.