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Visualization: The rise of the post office (when it wasn’t so poor)

With the postmaster general pleading poverty, what better time to consider the history of the postal system in America? Data visualization wizard Derek Watkins used government data to map the expansion of United States territorial control through the growth of the postal system.

Minnesota gets its first post offices right around 1850. Watch the expansion for yourself here:

If you want to go a little deeper, check out Minnesota’s first post office sorting shelves over at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Up Close blog. Pretty awesome. Also, pretty small.

A few interesting national patterns, noted by Watkins in a blog post:

  • 1776 – Several new post offices crop up along the east coast after the Revolution.
  • 1846 – Rash of openings in Texas after statehood and the end of the Mexican-American War.
  • 1848 – First offices established on the west coast, with lots of activity afterwards, likely due to gold rushes and CA statehood.
  • 1851 – New Mexico and Utah start to see some activity as they become territories. I especially like the lines extending from Santa Fe along the Rio Grande / El Camino Real.
  • 1860s – No activity in the South during the Civil War; also an interesting sweep across the Great Plains, with Oklahoma remaining conspicuously quiet.
  • 1870s – Distinct traces along railroads in Nebraska and Kansas.
  • 1890s – Oklahoma lights up due to several land rushes.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’ve started something new at The Intelligencer. Each Friday I’m posting data visualization projects produced by some other data nerd or organization. If you missed the last two Friday posts, check them out now: Interactive map: Visualizing the growth of newspapers in Minnesota and Mapping contributions to GOP presidential candidates.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/09/2011 - 08:57 am.

    St. Paul, circa 1970: USPO is a prime job, usually going to veterans due to the veterans’ preference. Good pay, good fringe benefits, lousy working conditions.

    St. Paul, circa 2011: USPS employees working on split wage schedule, retirement and medical plans significanly altered,lousy working conditions.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/09/2011 - 03:46 pm.

    In 1970, the Postal Service was run like the essential public service that it was meant to be.

    Now, it is expected to be not just self-supporting, but to show a profit, just as Amtrak, another critical component of public infrastructure, is expected to.

    We desperately need a return to sanity in Washington.

  3. Submitted by Diane Clare on 09/11/2011 - 09:32 am.

    Congress is ultimately in charge of running the post office per the US Constitution. We can opine all we want, but only Congress can act to make any changes.
    Who knows, maybe they will want to amend the Constitution to rid themselves of their burden.

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