(Joseph W. Briggs. WRHS Library.)
In the early years of the Civil War, Joseph W. Briggs a clerk at Cleveland’s single post office on Public Square watched lines of women waiting their turn to pick up mail. That was the practice at the time; there was no home delivery. Much of the mail they awaited was coming from loved ones serving in the Civil War. As he watched the long lines, particularly during the cold winter, Briggs came up with the idea of free home delivery and passed it on to the postmaster, Edwin Cowles. Cowles, who was also editor of a major local newspaper, the Cleveland Leader, thought it was a good idea – indeed it might help boost circulation of the paper.
That idea, born in Cleveland was approved by Congress in 1863 – but only for cities. Cowles was selected to implement the system and he organized free home delivery in 52 cities. He would also create the first postman’s uniform.
So, Cleveland was involved in something we take for granted almost every day – the mail carrier will be at our door delivering a myriad of items that are sent to us. It’s all part of system that dates back to 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed Postmaster General by the second Continental Congress and one that was later embedded in the Constitution which gave Congress the authority “to establish post offices and post roads”. In 1792 President George Washington would sign a law creating the Post Office Department. And that department and its successors would be the critical component in creating the original information infrastructure in the United States. Despite numerous technological changes, it remains critical to the nation as it does to the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Much of the archival content of our Library consists of letters – dating from the eighteenth century to the present. Letters written by the great and famous, and letters written by immigrants, dreamers, radicals and simply good friends to one another. They are a critical component to understanding who we were and what we are, and almost all of them went from one place to another thanks to the postal system – both that in the United States and those operating abroad.
And while we now share so much information via email and other virtual systems, the letters held the WRHS Archives have a very special quality. They are tangible reminders of connections between people – documents created by an individual and signed by an individual. Among the most poignant are those written during the Civil War, some of which may have made it “home” thanks to Joseph W. Briggs.
So, when a researcher in our library looks at and holds an original letter it is both a document and an item created by an individual – with a signature, with ink blots, and with a real link to whomever wrote it, whether it was George Washington, Joseph W. Briggs, or an immigrant communicating with his/her family. They are all the rarest of treasures – human thought, expressed physically on a sheet of paper. To work with them is compelling, even for long-time staff who never lose the thrill of encountering new thoughts put down on paper which moved from one place to another thanks to the postal system.