Save the Snail

In 1840, the first official Post Office in New Zealand was opened at Kororareka, when Lieutenant-Governor Hobson appointed William Clayton Hayes as Postmaster.

It soon turned out that Hayes, who apparently had a weakness for alcohol, wasn’t the right man for the job.  Within six months, he was suspended from duty for neglecting his responsibilities and continual inebriety.

Eventually, the New Zealanders got their act together and built up an excellent postal system, with even the rural areas of this South Pacific Island have been faithfully receiving mail six days a week. But it looks like major changes are on the way.

If proposed changes to the New Zealand Post’s charter are approved, residents of that country will start getting mail only three days a week as early as next year.

“I think people can genuinely understand that the world is changing,” said New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. “And while some people are still very reliant on the mail, for a lot of people that’s a fraction of the way they receive information.”

New Zealand is hardly the only one of Queen Elizabeth II provinces to plan major changes to their postal system. England is preparing to do what was once unthinkable —  privatize the postal system.

In 1516 — King Henry VIII, one of Britian’s most famous monarchs decided to establish the position of “Master of the Post,” and ordered that a royal postal service be maintained along the main roads radiating from London. Post-stages were set up along the way where Royal couriers could change horses. A hundred years later — in 1635 — a business-minded Charles I, eager to increase the amount of money flowing into the royal coffers, opened the royal post to use by the public.

Nearly five centuries later, the Royal Mail is still delivering mail, but it appears likely that very soon it won’t be run by the government anymore.

Exactly what Britons might expect under a privatized service remains unclear. In policy documents, the UK government said six-day-a-week deliveries and standardized letter prices remain vital but that private investors will provide more financial stability than “unpredictable” taxpayer funding.

Here in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service created an uproar earlier this month when it announced plans to start delivering mail five days a week instead of six.

It’s only in the past few years that postal services have truly felt the pinch of email. Revenues at the USPS, which delivers about 40 percent of the world’s mail, peaked in 2007 at $75 billion.

But the decline since then has been rapid. USPS revenue in 2012 fell to $65 billion, and its losses were $15.9 billion.

U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donaho is realistic. He doesn’t believe the service can ever regain the revenue it has lost from letters, but he hopes that by ending Saturday mail deliveries, while keeping six-day-a-week package deliveries, will save the service about $2 billion a year and keep the USPS a solid proposition for years to come. (Where the rest of the funds to fill the budget shortfall will come from remains unclear.)

“People still go to their mailbox every day and they wait for their mail to come,” he said. “It’s part of American life.”

We can only hope he is right.

For though a world dominated by email and other instant forms of communication has already become a reality, there are elements of what is now sneeringly referred to as “snail mail,” that can never be replaced.

Many members of our community still prefer not to use email, even if it is accessible through a portal closed off from all websites. Among those who do have email, many have access to it only at work. As the secular world moved ever towards a paperless society, Shabbos-observant Jews  who want to remember to attend an aufruf or Shabbos sheva brachos, still want that printed invitation to serve as their reminder.

Another causality of the age of email is the thought and heart that went into the disappearing art of writing letters. Gone is the care that was put into choosing the right salutation and deciding precisely how to sign the letter. In an email age, one all too often starts and ends with the message, hurling some of the last remnants of politeness into the dustbins of history.

In addition, even the most appealing computer font used in an email cannot compete with the personal touch of a handwritten note — even if it is only used at the bottom of a typed letter or printed invitation.

Even a printed invitation is far more personal than an email. Though computer generated stickers are now used in most large mailings, there is something telling about the physical effort that was exerted and the money that was spent in mailing an invitation. By its very nature, the informality of an email, and the ease with which it can be sent, doesn’t carry the same weight or convey the same message.

(Even more odious is the use of text messages instead of phone calls. In a recent letter to Hamodia, a man wrote how deeply offended he was when his younger brother texted him about the shalom zachar for his firstborn. “The message read ‘A personal invitation,’” the reader wrote, “…but can anything be more impersonal?”)

The U.S. postal system has certainly come a long since the days of Benjamin Franklin, but for numerous valid reasons, all efforts should be made to ensure that delivery of “snail mail,” — even if it is only five days a week — continues.