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Tracking Packages Across Space and Time

Many things unite humankind across the centuries, but chief among them is the great eternal question: what time can I expect the mail today? In today’s world, we’ve become accustomed to our new-found ability to track packages on our phones as they move toward us in real-time. Let’s take a look back in time to appreciate approaches taken over time to map local mail routes.

First up is “Carte particulière des postes de France,” a map created by Alexis-Hubert Jaillot in 1690 detailing the post offices of France. 

Map showing the post offices of France

“Carte particulière des postes de France” by Alexis Hubert Jaillot, 1690. Geography & Map Division.

Louis XI first established a set of post offices in France in 1464 for purposes of moving royal mail. Those initial post offices were typically 10-13 miles apart, with couriers on horseback carrying mail down the lines. The original royal mail system wasn’t designed to serve all the people of France: carrying private mail was not legalized in France until 1600, and a full public mail service was eventually established in 1627. 

Close up look of a mail route, symbolized by a line, and the many post office stops along the way (points with written names)

Detail of “Carte particulière des postes de France” by Alexis Hubert Jaillot, 1690. Geography & Map Division.

Jaillot’s map plots out the public 1690 postal routes, which run in long, connecting lines with frequent post office stops.

Next up is a postal route map of 19th century Virginia and West Virginia. 

Map showing post office routes of Virginia and West Virginia with additional Civil War annotations

“Battle fields of Virginia 1861 to 1865 and Post route map of the states of Virginia and West Virginia.” United States Post Office and Raleigh T. Daniel, 1910.

This particular map also contains annotations from Captain Raleigh Travers Daniel of Virginia’s Office of the Secretary of Virginia Military Records, which were added after the map’s original publication. Crossed sword symbols are placed across the map to indicate the locations of battle sites and skirmishes from the American Civil War. However, the map’s original intended purpose is also visible: showing where the mail routes ran and how often. Frequency ranged from once a week to six times per week on the busiest lines.

Map legend showing explanation of mail service by line

Detail of “Battle fields of Virginia 1861 to 1865 and Post route map of the states of Virginia and West Virginia.” United States Post Office and Raleigh T. Daniel, 1910.

Moving east to Washington, DC, our final map is a comprehensive Postal Guide published by the Washington City Post Office in 1855. This guide has everything a citizen could want to know about their local mail delivery, including a complete list of available post offices, frequency of service, a map of service areas, and even a listing (by name!) of the city’s postmen.

Full-page Postal Guide with a map of Washington, DC in the top center, surrounded by detailed text listing times and locations of postal offices and delivery schedules.

“Washington city postal guide : map showing the number of carrier deliveries by sections” by Washington City Post Office, 1885. Geography & Map Division.

Let’s take a closer look at location #2 on the map, “The President’s House.” 

Map of the area surrounding the White House showing postal route divisions

Detail of “Washington city postal guide : map showing the number of carrier deliveries by sections” by Washington City Post Office, 1885. Geography & Map Division.

We can see that the White House falls just outside the city’s downtown red zone, which could count on five mail deliveries per day. The green zone, by contrast, had just three deliveries. The US Capitol Building fell into a yellow zone, with four daily mail deliveries.

If you enjoyed these maps, consider exploring our Transportation and Communication map collection!

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