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Through Snow, Rain, Heat, and Gloom of Night

With 2020 bringing a pandemic, budget cuts, a record number of mail-in ballots, and now the holiday rush, we’d like to say a big thank you to the postal workers for keeping our letters and packages moving along.

Government mail delivery in Chicago began in 1831 with the appointment of a fur trader as the first postmaster. Prior to that time, letters and newspapers had occasionally found their way to the military post at Fort Dearborn, carried by military couriers on a route that linked Fort Dearborn with Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1836, mail contractors instituted stagecoach service, taking advantage of postal subsidies to encourage passenger travel. The following year, the Chicago post office became a distribution center—testimony to the rapid expansion of the settlement and to its growing importance in the national postal network. 

As transportation technology developed, so did the mail service. In 1864, Chicago postal administrator George B. Armstrong established a railway mail train on the route between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. A milestone in postal sorting occurred in 1924 with the construction in the city of an enormous railway mail terminal, hailed as the largest of its kind in the world. In 1918, airmail service between New York and Chicago began. By the 1920s, it was possible, for an extra fee, to send a letter by air from Chicago to most of the major urban centers in the country. 

For most of the past century, the Chicago post office has been one of the busiest in the country. Along with New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, it is one of the five International Service Centers in the US—a facility that distributes and dispatches international mail received from a designated service area to specific foreign countries or to gateway exchange offices.

Learn more about the history of mail delivery in Chicago in our Encyclopedia of Chicago entry.

Images: Clockwise from top left: Four letter carriers holding bundles of Christmas mail, standing outside a building, Chicago, 1911. DN-0009471, Chicago Daily News collection, CHM. Workers at the Chicago main post office sorting Christmas mail, Chicago, c. 1965. CHM, ICHi-175409; Stephen Deutch, photographer. Postal worker delivering mail, Chicago, January 11, 1977. ST-30004837-0012, Chicago Sun-Times Collection, CHM. Workers at the main post office sorting Christmas mail, Chicago, c. 1965. CHM, ICHi-175405; Stephen Deutch, photographer.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago 

The Encyclopedia of Chicago is no mere collection of fun facts. It is a work of stunning scholarly achievement.” — Tom McNamee, Chicago Sun-Times 

Published by the University of Chicago Press, The Encyclopedia of Chicago is the result of a ten-year collaboration between the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum. This project brought together hundreds of historians, journalists, and experts on everything from airlines to Zoroastrians to explore all aspects of the rich world of Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan area. 

Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories