Benjamin Franklin and America’s Mail

Benjamin Franklin has long been considered one of the Founding Fathers of America with contributions that are still in use today. As a printer, he purchased and published the most successful newspaper within the colonies, the Pennsylvania Gazette, along with other pamphlets and papers. As an inventor, his Franklin stove kept homes warm until more modernized heating systems were developed, and bifocals remain heavily in use today.

Another contribution applied to Mr. Franklin is also his turn as the first Post Master General of the United States in 1775, however he began as the joint postmaster of the British Crown Post in 1737 due to his station as a newspaper publisher. During his time as the Postmaster of the British Crown Post, the post office of the colonies posted its first profit in 1760. Under Franklin’s guiding hand, the penny post was implemented, allowing for delivery of mail to locations other than the post office, newspapers being delivered for a small fee, and much faster delivery times due to the mail being moved day and night, and more efficient routes within the colonies, which Franklin himself helped map and scout.

During his time as a young man, Ben Franklin took part in a group of like minded individuals to form a group, known as the Junto, to discuss the matters of the day. All the members had a fondness to reading, and they discussed developing a library system by pooling their money and buying books to share. This may have been the inspiration for one of Ben Franklin’s lesser known contributions, a mail order service for books.

File:Benjamin Franklin, Catalogue of Books.djvu

“A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, Consisting of Near 600 Volumes, in most Faculties and Sciences” was sent out by Ben Franklin in 1744 and offered hundreds of titles for sale. The sale began April 11th at 9 am and would continue for 3 weeks and no longer. The books were sold at the lowest cost during the sale, but after the sale ended, they would be sold at an ‘advanced cost’.

This opportunity was almost unheard of back in 1744.  While the printing press allowed for mass producing the written word, books were expensive and not as freely available as they are now.   In addition, postal carriers never seemed to carry parcels as cumbersome as a book.  It is believed that the books would have been delivered by wagons traveling to the delivery area, as most other materials would have been.  This publication may seem small in scale but it acted as a precursor to the mail order catalogs that still are in use today.

The significance of his appointment as the first Post Master General (and his appointment as a Joint Postmaster prior to the first Congressional Congress) is that we as a society today enjoy one of the most efficient postal services around the world, and have for over two hundred years.

As for his use of the ‘Catalogue’ to begin the process of mail ordered materials, major corporations such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, JCPenny and Hammacher Schlemmer have conducted business for decades using that same business model. While the creation of websites and online businesses have since replaced the majority of mail order catalogs, many are still sent out by businesses such as LL Bean and Dell to draw attention to their products.


The First American by H.W. Brands (2002)