Signed, Sealed, Delivered: A History of the United States Postal Service


Grade Level & Subject: 5 – 8; History
Length: 1 Class Period
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:  

  • Understand the evolution of the postal system and why it is such an important institution in the United States
  • Explain how changes in the way mail is sent has affected the environment
  • Explore ways to creatively send mail without causing unnecessary harm to the environment.

National Standards Addressed:[1]
This lesson addresses the following National Standards for History from the National Center for History in the Schools:

Materials Needed:

  • Reproducible #1 – Mail Service Time Line Key (for teacher use only)
  • Reproducible #2 – Time Line Cards

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Participation in activities and discussion
  • Composure of a well-written and creative story/drawing
  • Presentation of story/drawing


Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Chronological: Of, relating to, or arranged in or according to the order of time.[2]
  • Pony Express: A rapid postal and express system that operated across the western United States in 1860–61 by relays of horses and riders.[3]
  • Postmaster General: An official in charge of a national post office department or agency.[4]
  • Telegram: A message dispatched from anapparatus, system, or process for communication at a distance by electric transmission over wire.[5]

Background Information:

Ever since humans began to populate the earth, it was of the utmost importance to be able to communicate with one another.  In the early days, this was easy, for people simply used word of mouth to communicate with their families and members of their communities.  However, as civilization expanded, passing messages between groups or individuals became more difficult.  At the same time, as communities grew it became even more important to pass news, especially in times of war or for reasons of politics.  Over time, civilizations invented a variety of ingenious ways to pass information. The Inca, for example, used runners that could pass a message from Quito to Cuzco on foot in as little as 10 days.[6]  In 1860 in the United States, the mail was delivered by horses in the Pony Express. These riders traveled over wild, mountainous and dangerous country but almost always delivered the mail to where it needed to be. In the 19 months that the service existed, only 1 letter was every lost.[7

When the United States was formed, the First Continental Congress deemed creating a mail system as one of its most important and pressing tasks.  The system they created was the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first ever Post Master General in 1775.[8]  Today, this institution still exists and is a government agency responsible for delivering letters and packages to any address across the country. It has undergone many changes since that time: from mail being delivered by horses, to trains, and then cars, trucks and airplanes.[9]  With the advent of each new technology, mail was able to be delivered faster and more accurately.  The USPS has become a very important and reliable agency in the United States government.

At this point in its evolution however, the postal system must be examined for its impacts on our natural environment.  The use of trucks, cars and planes to transport mail involves the burning of fossil fuels that produces quite a large amount of air pollution. Although environmental-based improvement to the postal system have occurred recently (such as boxes made or recyclable materials, non-toxic stamps, mail trucks run on biodiesel, etc.) it is important to discuss the real environmental impact that happens when packages are sent across country.  In the coming years, significant changes will be made to the mail system to address environmental concerns in an age of e-mails, faxes and other communication tools of the 21st century.



Teacher Preparation Steps

  1. Print out Reproducible #2 – Time Line Cards, and cut out as many as needed for each pair of student to have one card.  Decide which events in the time line you would like to omit from the lesson if there are fewer students in the class than there are cards.  

Warm-up:  The Speed of Communication

  1. People have always needed to communicate with each other.  National leaders, armies, governments, families, friends, and professionals have always needed to exchange messages, but it used to be a lot harder to send a message than it is now.  Today, we have instant messaging, email, and cell phones, but there was a time when it could take months and months before information from one person got to another person.  By that time, sometimes the information wasn’t even relevant anymore.  
  2. Ask your students to think of ways people used to communicate
  3. Answers should include; word of mouth, message runners, boats, horses, and wagons, letters, telegrams
  4. Explain that today we have reliable, fast ways to send mail and packages all over the world. However, how did people communicate 200 years ago? In today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the evolution of the mail service in the United States.

Activity One: Mail Service Timeline

  1. Divide students into pairs.
  2. Mix up the cut-out Time Line Cards fromReproducible #2 – Time Line Cards and hand one out to each pair. Give the kids time to read the information about their event in the time line.
  3. Instruct the students to stand up and organize themselves in a line around the classroom in what they think is the correct chronological order of the events.  Students will need to discuss with each other the information they have on their cards.  When they have decided on an order, go through the line and put them in the correct order when they are not.  
  4. Then, start at the beginning of the line and say the year this event took place (Reference Reproducible #1 – Mail Service Time Line Key). As you go through each event, have one students of the pair read the name of the event and the information on their card.  Repeat this all the way down the line.
  5. After the timeline has been completed, ask students to return to their seats and lead a discussion about the evolution of the postal system by asking the following questions:
  6. What changes can you see in the way in which mail has been transported overtime? Possible answers: machines have been gradually introduced such as cars, trucks, and planes to replace human and animal transportation; technology has made things faster and easier; the pace of mail delivery gets faster over time.
  7. What effects do you think this has had on the environment?  Answer: has created more air pollution from fossil fuel emissions, creates  paper waste
  8. What ways can you think of that could decrease the harm that sending letters and packages has on the environment? Answer: not send as many letters/packages, convert trucks and planes to use alternative fuel sources, use reusable or recycled envelopes and boxes, use biodegradable/non toxic adhesive on stamps and envelopes, use email instead, etc.

Activity Two: Mail of the Future

  1. Now that students have a firm understanding of how the postal system has changed over time, tell them that they will now be creating the next “chapter” in the history of the postal service.  Tell students to imagine that he or she is a secret agent living in the year 3000.  They have been given a mission to send a mysterious package to another agent in England.  What kinds of mail transportation would they use?  Because this scenario takes place in the future, students should invent new ways to send mail.  They should include three new methods total: one for land, air, and sea.  Encourage them to be creative.  They could create new machines, creative animals, or anything else their imagination can create.
  2. Students should write a creative writing story about how they get the mysterious package to its destination.  Make sure they include what their new transportation forms are, how long it will take, and what turns out to be in the package in the end.  Encourage them to be as imaginative as possible and write in the form of a story.  
  3. For younger students, have them make a drawing to accompany their story.  It could be of a transport form, their secret agent costume, the mystery package, etc.  
  4. Have students share their stories with the class.  

Wrap Up:  What Can I Do?

  1. Ask students to recall some of the events discussed in the timeline.  What events surprised them?  What new facts did they learn about the mail system today? Answers will vary.
  2. Now that students have created their own imaginary story about the mail system in the future, ask students to brainstorm more realistic ideas about how they can use the mail system in a more environmentally friendly manner. Keep a list on the board.  Answers may include: sending more information by email, using boxes over again, using recycled materials instead of bubble wrap, etc.


  1. Assign students to research an ancient form of message transport such as Incan couriers, the Grecian marathon runner, etc. Tell them to create a presentation about their topic to present to the class.  They should explore the form of transport, how effective it was, and what type of environmental impacts it would have had.
  2. Start a class game of “telephone.” Have students sit in a circle and give one student a short message to whisper into the ear of the students next to him/her.  Have the class pass the message around the circle in a whisper.  When it reaches the last person, see if it has changed from the original message.  Start a discussion about what this shows about passing messages by word of mouth.  Does this help students understand why people originally decided they needed a better method of transporting news?



Students have examined the United States mail system and how it has changed overtime.  They have looked at the reasons why having a reliable way to pass information over long distances is important.  Students appreciate the environmental impact that sending letters and packages across the country and even the world has on the earth and have brainstormed ways in which this impact could be decreased.


Annie Stoller-Patterson – Author

Education Intern, Earth Day Network

Nicole Holstein – Author

Education Intern, Earth Day Network
Maggie Ollove – Editor

Education Associate, Earth Day Network

[2]“Chronological Entry.”  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[3]“Pony Express Entry.”  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[4]“Postmaster General Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[5]“Telegraph Entry.”  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[6]“Couriers in the Incan Empire: Getting Your Message Across.”  Endsitement. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[7]“History of the Pony Express.” PonyExpress MuseumRetrieved July 7, 2011 from

[8]“Significant Dates.” USPS History. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from