- Cullman, Alabama


January 2, 2013

COMMENTARY: Did You Tip Your Mail Carrier This Year? And Do You Know Why?


The text of such addresses was highly idiosyncratic. Verses ranged from the humorous and satirical to the dry and serious. Their authors included newspaper editors, well-known figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Webster, and the young carriers themselves. Incorporating state-of-the-art printing techniques and covering topics ranging from war to temperance, taxes to fashion, they captured the zeitgeist. Yet despite their diversity, the addresses were united in a single purpose — to solicit cash.

Then, as now, a good tip depended on the customer's disposition, disposable income and relationship with the service provider. Persuasive carriers and those working urban routes did quite well. Joseph T. Buckingham, who would become an influential editor and politician, recalled his New Year's windfall in 1797 from some 30 patrons of the Greenfield Gazette in Massachusetts:

"I counted my wealth, — six dollars and seventy-five cents, — all in quarters and eighths of a dollar, — and locked it in my chest! Never before had I been the owner of so much money, — never before so rich."

Working as an apprentice at the Columbian Centinel in Boston, Samuel Woodworth received $10 in tips on New Year's Day in 1802, which he used to buy presents for his family, including an almanac and a pair of candlesticks. According to historian Gerald D. McDonald, between 1860 and 1865, carriers in New York were collecting a total of $5,000 in tips each year.

Carriers referred to these payments as "gifts," and patrons received a printed address as their thanks and acknowledgement. More importantly, generous tippers secured another year of attentive service, making annual gratuities resemble obligations or bribes more than largesse. Thinking of it more as a monetary exchange than an expression of sentiment, a recipient of a carrier's address in 1865 in Colorado wrote on his copy, "Cost me 50 cents."

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