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'Neither Snow Nor Rain' Celebrates History Of U.S. Postal Service


For most of our history, the post office was central to American life. When it expanded free delivery to people's homes in the second half of the 1800s, first in cities then in rural areas, it knitted the country together. It delivered newspapers. When presidents appointed local postmasters, they were patronage jobs and they strengthened the political parties.

The pony express, the railroads, commercial air service all were part of the story that Devin Leonard relates in his new book "Neither Snow Nor Rain." In the days before the telephone, not to mention email, what the post office did was big news.

DEVIN LEONARD: It was on the front page all the time. I mean, if you read about the dawn of airmail, that was a front-page story. The pilots were heroes. The coast-to-coast flights and sort of races to see who could deliver the mail faster by different pilots - everybody in the country followed that.

SIEGEL: I met Devin Leonard at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. And as he explains, one of the most important figures in shaping the Postal Service was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was effectively the U.S. philatelist in chief. He collected stamps from childhood.

LEONARD: When he got polio, one of the ways that he sort of relaxed and when he was recovering he looked at his stamps all the time. And when he got back into politics - and he didn't make any secret when he ran for governor that he was a stamp collector and his photograph with his magnifying glass up next to his eye. And so when he - he became really involved in the post office department when he became president in all sorts of ways.

SIEGEL: And he means all sorts of ways. Before the 1970s, the post office was a federal agency and the postmaster general sat in the Cabinet. He was typically someone who knew nothing about Postal Service and everything about party politics. In 1933, when FDR entered the White House, he appointed his campaign manager, James Farley, postmaster general. In the postal museum's national stamp salon, there are vertical drawers of stamps that visitors can pull out from the wall.

Here's a display of both stamps but also sketches - one of them on White House stationery. Here's another one with a little drawing of an eagle. It's actually signed by the artist of the sketch, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

LEONARD: It's an original Roosevelt.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) He was drawing the designs for postage stamps.

LEONARD: Yeah, it's incredible. He's obviously no artist. I mean, you look at that eagle, you know, it's pretty rudimentary. But that's how important stamps were to him. He drew out the designs, and I think sometimes Farley came to him with sort of prototypes and Roosevelt said no, no, no, no. And he'd sketch out his own version.

He wanted these stamps to send a message to people. You know, he wanted to uplift them and to make them feel better about being an American at a time when the country was really in trouble and 25 percent of the, you know, people in the country were unemployed. So he saw the Postal Service as a way to convey that and to knit people together and it's just - it's pretty amazing. And also there's a - there's the Susan B. Anthony stamp.

SIEGEL: Yeah, women - this was - the women had just been voting for about a decade.

LEONARD: Yeah, right, and Farley went to the White House and said, you know, we have all these women who want a Susan B. Anthony stamp and FDR said something like by all means give it to them because I don't want them to besiege me at the White House, so...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) You know, you write about how FDR opened post offices. Actually, you describe one - a post office I know in Rhinebeck, N.Y.


SIEGEL: It's is a beautiful post office.

LEONARD: I know, it is.

SIEGEL: And when FDR did this, it wasn't just supplying a job. It was putting a symbol of the federal government of the United States in that community.

LEONARD: He wanted post offices to be beautiful. And he wanted people to go - you know, all Americans, everybody went to the post office. Everybody stood in line. There was this sort of communal experience. But he wanted these places to be beautiful. He wanted the architecture to be better and he also wanted people to learn something about America and learn something about art.

And so under the Roosevelt administration these great artists painted murals in more than a thousand post offices around the country. They're still there. You can still go see them. I mean, they're beautiful, and people in rural areas have never seen anything like that. And so people were, you know, really moved. So it was, again, it was both political, but he was also doing it to uplift the country in a really terrible time for the country at the end of the Great Depression.

SIEGEL: I want you to tell the story that you relate of FDR when he first becomes president and when he's dealing with the bank crisis. I mean, you know, the fate of the whole economy is at stake and at the end of a Cabinet meeting he calls someone aside. Tell what that was.

LEONARD: Well, literally he was sworn in on a Saturday. And he gave that famous speech about we have nothing to fear but fear itself and everybody was pretty afraid. So the next day it was a Sunday but he was still there, I guess with his staff and they were trying to figure out a way to handle the bank crisis. They wanted to close - they wanted to have a bank holiday and sort of calm everybody down.

And he called a guy from the secretary of state's office. And then once they decided what they were going to do, everybody left. He said, no, no, no, wait, and he said to the guy from the secretary of state, you must get some great stamps from all around the world. Listen, could you - could you bag some of them up and give them to me? And so despite the fact that he's - it's his first day literally, you know, on the job, he's dealing, you know, with a crisis that we can barely even imagine now, he still had stamps on his mind, so...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) It must've been...

LEONARD: Just the beginning...

SIEGEL: I'm president. I can get some great stamps. That's Devin Leonard talking with us about FDR, an important character in his book "Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History Of The Postal Service." We spoke at the postal Museum here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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