While America was achieving its goal of independence during the Revolutionary War from 1775-1783, its leaders knew that starting a new nation was not to be all that easy. They were on their own then. Limited and oppressive that it had been, there was no help from the mother country anymore and, as the saying goes with a bit of alteration, now was the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.
One of the problems facing the new kid in the world was the lack of communications. There were no e-mails then or telegrams or telephones and the postman did not ring twice or even once. In Cape May County, as elsewhere, the primitive roads were conversions from the paths of the Lenni Lenape Indians and were not conducive to general travel. Sometimes, in the era of the stage coach, it took four or five days, if at all, for messages to get from one end of the county to the other.
It was not until 1802 that an organized postal system became evident in Cape May County. The first post office in the county was opened in that year in Dennis Township which, in addition to Cape Island, was then a key community in the county. Cape Island, later to be named Cape May, was to open its first post office in 1804 in the hotel of Ellis Hughes, an early booster of tourism in that resort.
He also was named postmaster two years after Jeremiah Johnson became the county’s initial postmaster in Dennis Creek.
This is not to say that efforts were not made in colonial times to establish a postal system. But they were rather informal at first as messages were carried by friends, merchants and American Indians to the various colonies. Getting the word from America to England was indeed a challenge, and in 1639 the first official postal service in the colonies was established in Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston. That followed a practice in England to use houses and taverns as mail drops, serving a double purpose for those who were thirsty and still wanted to mail their greetings to their friends, especially those who were Irish.
Benjamin Franklin, a man for all seasons in those times, added the postal system to his laurels in 1730 when at the age of 31 he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia. Franklin was a rising figure in America then as the owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette and as a printer who published it.
His promise was shown when in 1753 Franklin was appointed as joint postmaster for the crown with postmaster William Hunter of Williamsburg, Va. It was an auspicious beginning for him. He went on a long inspection tour of his new command and he began to reorganize the service, setting out newer and shorter routes for delivery. Soon, so-called called post riders carried the mail at night between Philadelphia and New York and the travel time was cut in half.
Early on, Franklin made history in the postal service, as he was to do in other areas of government, when he was the first for the postal service in North America to report a surplus to the British postmaster general.
But, alas, as the war approached and Franklin’s anti-British sentiments became more prominent he was dismissed from the post in 1774 and he went on to bigger things. He left a heritage, though, the first post road routes between Maine and Florida and between New York and Canada and the first regularly scheduled mails between the colonies and Great Britain. Also, in 1772 he started what is today the postal inspection service.
Franklin was not to separate from the postal system completely, however. As the colonies moved closer to independence, Franklin was appointed chairman of a committee to investigate the formation of a postal system for the 13 colonies. He was named postmaster general on July 26, 1775, and served until Nov. 7, 1776, a few months after the new nation formally proclaimed its independence. Franklin was to die 14 years later on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84.
He was to live long enough to see other improvements by other hands in the postal system. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in May 1789 the office of postmaster general was officially created and the job went to Massachusetts’ Samuel Ogden. He was to preside over 75 post offices across some 2,000 miles of post roads and there were 26 post riders who are now referred to as mailmen or letter carriers.
A century later in 1875 the Cape May area was to have a postal relationship of some significance when 37-year-old John Wanamaker of Philadelphia entered the scene and was a catalyst for the founding of a place called Sea Grove at the southernmost point of New Jersey. It was to be better known later as Cape May Point where Wanamaker built a summer home and helped build a church. Later, it was to be better known as Cape May Point.
Wanamaker was a friend of President Benjamin Harrison and he invited the president and his family to visit him at the Point. The nation’s 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 liked it so well that he established a vacation residence there too, and made the nearby Congress Hall in Cape May his summer White House.
Some fame already had come to Wanamaker, at least in the east, when he opened a store in New York City in 1896. He was to expand his mercantile accomplishments in 1910 as he started a Philadelphia department store in a 12-story building at 13th and Market streets. In its time it was to be visited as much, if not more, as the Liberty Bell.
In 1889, the first year of Harrison’s presidency, he named Wanamaker as his postmaster general. It turned out to be a tenure that was mixed with praise and censure. He was lauded for introducing the first commemorative stamp, to plan for free rural postal service and for pushing Congress successfully to pass an act banning the sale of lottery tickets through the mail. The law ended state lotteries in the United States until they were revived in 1964, partly as a countermeasure against organized crime.
Wanamaker’s critics weren’t as enthusiastic. He was attacked for firing 30,000 employees. He commissioned a series of stamps that the media said were of inferior quality. He banned Tolstoy’s book “The Kreutzer Sonata” from the mails on the grounds of obscenity. He changed the style of uniforms and then ordered the new clothing from a Baltimore firm with which he was said to be financially affiliated.
And in 1893 at the Chicago World Fair he demeaned the arrival of the automobile on the American scene, and predicted that for the next century mail would still be delivered in stage coaches and by horseback.
Wanamaker died in 1922 at the age of 84, having owned houses in many places including London, Paris, Philadelphia and Cape May Point.