Free city delivery of mail was established in 1863. In the years that followed, letter carriers found themselves working 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. The fight to achieve legal recognition of an 8-hour day, successfully concluded in 1888, clearly demonstrated what could be achieved when letter carriers banded together and reached out beyond their local area.
This idea was behind the official call, issued by Milwaukee letter carriers, to meet in August 1889. The date was chosen to coincide with the reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans from the Civil War, an event that was scheduled to be held in Milwaukee. The hope was that the lower rail fares available because of the reunion would increase attendance and make the meeting truly national.
For the event, 60 letter carriers showed up in Milwaukee on August 29 in the meeting room above Schaeffer’s Saloon. The following day, these delegates passed a resolution officially establishing the National Association of Letter Carriers.
A look at the delegate list shows the NALC had a national range from the start, with representatives from San Francisco to Buffalo. But the schedule, in conjunction with a meeting of union veterans, meant the states of the former Confederacy weren’t well represented. And the large cities of Philadelphia and New York, which had been so central to the fight for the 8-hour day, were conspicuous by their absence.
The next year saw letter carriers in attendance from the north and the south, from small towns and big cities alike, united and ready to move forward. New York City letter carriers convened a meeting on July 4, 1890, to which they invited representatives of the fledgling NALC. In Wendell’s Assembly Rooms on 7th Avenue, supporters of the NALC made their case. Central to their argument was the contention that “an instrument to do national legislative work is a necessity”—a statement that still resonates today. A resolution urging all cities to bring their local associations under the NALC passed after serious debate.
The first convention, which took place a month later in Boston, was attended by 68 delegates. By that point, the NALC encompassed 52 branches representing 4,600 carriers. Each subsequent issue of The Postal Record documented steady growth in the number of branches, as the NALC reached into every region, every state—anywhere letter carriers were delivering mail.
Those involved in these early years were conscious that the union needed some sort of badge or emblem so that members would have an easy way to identify each other. A committee was established at the convention in Boston to select an appropriate image. The resulting design was formally adopted in January of 1891: a hand holding a letter addressed “USA” within a circular border inscribed “National Association of Letter Carriers.” The design has served the union well, as it steadily grew in the years that followed; it remains the NALC logo today.
The NALC maintains an Information Center in its headquarters in Washington, DC. Assets include Postal Records and other union publications, along with vertical files on union history and letter carrier–related topics. While its primary purpose is to support union officers and staff, it is open to interested members of the public by appointment.
Contact the Information Center with questions or to make an appointment by writing to Information Center, NALC, 100 Indiana Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20001-2144.
For more information on the history of the union, you can read Carriers in a Common Cause, the NALC’s official history. The book tells the story of the struggle by letter carriers, from the birth of the Postal Service in 1775 to today.
The union’s official archives have been housed in the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit since 2001 and are open to the public. Visitors to Reuther can consult the papers of past presidents Rademacher, Vacca, Sombrotto and Young, along with records of other national officers and headquarters staff. Videos and photographic images are also available.
The Reuther archives are open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Reuther website explains the procedure for conducting research at the library, and includes abstracts and finding aids for the various NALC collections. Some photographic images can be retrieved directly from the website. As NALC historical records are not available in a digital format, interested researchers must visit Reuther in person to access the collection.
Walter P. Reuther Library | Wayne State University | 5401 Cass Ave. | Detroit, MI 48202
The NALC does not maintain records of individuals who may have belonged to the union or worked as a letter carrier in the past, so it generally cannot assist in genealogical research. The same limitations apply to the union’s archival holdings at the Reuther in Detroit.
Pay and personnel records of individual letter carriers beginning in 1901 can sometimes be obtained from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. For those interested in letter carriers who worked in the 19th century, the National Archives has produced Record Cards of Letter Carriers Separated from the Postal Service, 1863-1899 (Microfilm Publication M1846).
U.S. Postal Service
Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general in what is now the United States, appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775. Since then, the history of the Postal Service has been interwoven with that of the country it serves. Persons wishing to explore what is available through official government records about the Postal Service and its history should consult Sources of Historical Information on Post Offices, Postal Employees, Mail Routes and Mail Contractors (Publication 119).
This USPS publication provides an excellent overview of what historical information is available and how and where specific items can be accessed.