Where Can I Mail a Letter? The History of Postal Service in Maplewood
Like many conveniences of modern life, the daily mail is something we take for granted, noticing only when letters are slipped through the mail slot unusually late in the day, or perhaps after a major hurricane, when they don’t come at all.
But postal service in Maplewood has had a long journey over some rough roads. Maplewood today is a town of 3.9 square miles with a population of some 24,000, nestled on the eastern slope of South Mountain between South Orange and Millburn, six miles west of Newark and about 20 miles west of Manhattan. Most development occurred between 1900 and 1930, and more than 80 percent of the town’s houses retain the graceful Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Colonial and Tudor Revival architecture of that period. At least a dozen houses date to the midto-late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the center of town is a four-block long commercial area called Maplewood Village, far from major through-roads, with a pleasant small-town feeling in its collection of stores, restaurants, cinema and a train station, the far side of which faces a 24-acre park of tall trees, meandering paths and gentle hills designed by Brinley and Holbrook, who had designed the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Olmsted Brothers.
The designation and determination of the boundaries of the community have changed seven times since the area was first settled by a group that had come to Newark from Connecticut with Robert Treat in 1666.
The 3.9 square miles that is now Maplewood had been divided up in many different ways between 1693 and 1904, and this may have been a factor in the difficulty the town had in achieving the status of a First-Class Post Office. The area was part of Newark Township from 1693 to 1794, and over the next half-century was variously divided between Newark and Springfield Townships, Orange, Millburn and Clinton Townships until 1863, when it was wholly within South Orange Township. South Orange Village broke away in 1904, and in 1922 Maplewood officially gained the name its western portion had been called locally for more than a century.
From its beginnings, the area that is now Maplewood had two major sections that remained independent in many respects into the 20th century. The western section of the present town was named Jefferson Village by official proclamation in 1798 and later referred to as Maplewood Center (now Maplewood Village). The eastern section of town was called North Farms in the late 18th century, then Middleville (c. 1830) and, in 1880, Hilton. Its postal service was always separate from Maplewood Center, and to this day there is a branch of the post office, called Maplecrest Station, on its main thoroughfare, Springfield Avenue.
Currently, the townspeople are concerned about the imminent closing of the 1958 Post Office building on Maplewood Avenue (in the Village) because a continued postal presence in the Village in the future is not yet determined. The property will be redeveloped for retail and residential use.
Looking back, the story of Maplewood’s postal service has always been one of change. Over the past 250 years, area residents have gone to a bewildering number of places for their mail. From time to time over 132 of those years, beginning c. 1815, the town campaigned to be a first-class post office, but this wish was not granted until 1947.
Heading North, South and East for mail
From the late 1600s until the early 19th century, the settlers of this then-rural locale had to travel on horseback or ox cart to Newark or Elizabeth-Town to get their mail. The mail provided critical links with distant family members and business associates, and access to newspapers. By 1691, six post offices, established under grants from the English Crown, had opened between New York and Philadelphia.1 In the Revolutionary period, c. 1776, mail received at New York addressed to people in New Jersey was sent to the post office at Elizabeth-Town, the State capital.2 One of the new Congress’s first official acts, in 1788, was to create a national Post Office and by 1790, there were five official US Post Offices in New Jersey: Newark, Elizabeth, Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton.3
Population growth and the public’s clamor for more and better postal service led to the establishment between 1808 and 1812 of post offices in Orange, Springfield and Camptown (later Irvington). Mail for Jefferson Village residents might be found in any one of these local post offices, with no discernable consistency or rationale, and if people did not pick them up, they could check the local newspapers like The Centinel of Newark and the New-Jersey Journal to find out if there were letters waiting for them – and where they might be. According to published Lists of Letters between 1804 and 1818, neighbors on Ridgewood Road might be directed to Elizabeth-Town, Springfield, or Orange to pick up their mail.
Seeking a Closer Post Office
The western part of Maplewood had been named Jefferson Village in 1798, according to an article in The Centinel of Freedom:
A short time previous to the 4th of July, the Citizens of North Springfield and those living in that part of South Orange adjoining thereto, met at Mr. John Lyon’s and unanimously Resolved That those said places be hereafter called and known by the name of JEFFERSON’S VILLAGE.
By 1815, Jefferson Village, the area between the east branch of the Rahway River and the crest of South Mountain, had grown to a community of about 30 families that included a factory, a blacksmith shop and a sawmill. Around that time, the residents of Jefferson Village decided to petition the US government for their own post office. A map of the settlement, dotted with the names of the inhabitants, was created, reportedly by Cyrus Durand. The map was an important source of information because it showed the location and number of dwellings in the area at a time when there were no directories. The process for establishing post offices was very political, and postmasters’ income was based in large part on the dollar value of receipts collected for postage. Jefferson Village did not pass the test, and the village began a wait of 132 years.
Jefferson Village did make its mark on the Postal Service, however. The renowned Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand, who started his career as an engraver of bank notes, was born on present Ridgewood Road, then Grub Street. In 1847 the U.S. Post Office selected Durand’s engravings of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin for its first postage stamps.
Cracker Barrel Post Offices: The Era of the General Store c 1840 ‐ 1910
In the early 1840s, Aaron Crowell, who owned Crowell’s Cider Mill (a local gathering place), built the Clinton Valley Store on what is now Park Road at Valley Street, near the present Maplewood Town Hall.
“The store was also the informal post-office center for the surrounding area. All mail-matter that belonged to families in this section was put into a special box at the South Orange Post Office and anyone coming down would pick up the mail and bring it to the store.” Charlotte Crowell Salter 4
Harry J. Baker worked there as a clerk and bought the business in 1884. Four years later, his father, Thomas C. Baker, Township Assessor, built him a new store with a residence above, on Baker Street in Maplewood Center. The elder Baker was well connected politically and Harry was appointed Postmaster in 1889, a position he held until 1909. Postal records are not clear as to whether this was a Presidential appointment.
Harry Baker kept the one general store in Maplewood where you could buy anything from a needle to an elephant. He was also a postmaster and the post office was located in his store where each resident had his private post office box and picked up his mail when he came to purchase groceries or other merchandise. Warren S. Gulick 5
According to a magazine photo caption from the early 1900s, Baker’s store provided “abundant opportunity for all necessary family supplies. The post office is located in this store and your delayed letter was usually found back of the sugar barrel six months later.”
The eastern side of town, first called North Farms, became Middleville in 1830, but in 1880 the name was changed to Hilton.
For fifty years the town jogged along comfortably under the practical if somewhat unoriginal name of Middleville. Then in 1880 a request of the town for a post office was granted, and Middleville was unexpectedly confronted with the necessity of choosing a new name, since there turned out to be already another Middleville Post Office in the state. ‘Hilton’ was the new name chosen, for reasons not now clear. Mr. Bataille, urging his horse on to the Irvington Post Office with the out-going Hilton mail deep in his saddle-bags, must have added a breath of pony express to the staid Hilton streets during the early 1880’s. Mary Oakley Dawson 7
Charlie Stewart, owner of the general store on Springfield Avenue at Burnett Avenue, was postmaster of Hilton from 1879 to 1897, followed by other postmasters. In 1916, when Hilton delivery was stopped, letters had to be called for at Newark or Irvington.
Charlie Stewart’s...store was all a country store of the time should be. It had everything: farming implements, hay, saddles, nails, groceries, candy, the wax forerunner of chewing gum, coal, wagon scales, cloth, blue jeans, chicken feed and the post office. It was heated by the largest pot-bellied stove I had ever seen....That store in the early days was more of a gathering place than any of the saloons. Mail came in twice a day. Kids, including myself, were there to meet it, and we waited until Charlie or his clerk, Jim Gavin, had sorted it. It arrived, in the earliest days that I recall, by horseback, from Irvington. There usually wasn’t a great deal, but it was a good excuse for the gathering of the clan. While waiting, we kids used the triangle at Academy Street, Burnet and Springfield Avenues, as a playground. But once the mail was sorted and given out, you should have seen the kids streak in all directions for home as though the devil were after them. That was all a part of the ‘go-get-the-mail’ ritual. G. Clifford Jones 8
On the Move: Maplewood Village’s “Traveling” Post Office 1910 ‐ 1958
As the general store-as-post-office era was coming to a close, William Van Iderstine succeeded Harry Baker as Postmaster in 1909, in an appointment made by the President and approved by the Senate. In 1910 the post office was moved to 170 Maplewood Avenue, on the main street of Maplewood Village, as a standalone operation on the ground floor. The title of Maplewood Postmaster was discontinued in 1912 when Maplewood’s post office became a substation of South Orange.
In most major cities, free home and business delivery began in 1863, but it was not until 1912 that service was extended to Maplewood and other small towns and cities across the nation. The iconic concept of the mailman walking the streets of town, bringing mail and news, became a local reality. Parcel post service began in 1913, allowing people to receive not only their Sears catalogues, but also the merchandise they ordered from them.
Maplewood had been part of South Orange Township since 1863, but in 1904, South Orange Village seceded, leaving Maplewood (then including Hilton) on its own. It finally took the official name of Maplewood in 1922.
Nevertheless, Maplewood was still a “third-class substation” of the South Orange post office. This did not sit well with residents especially since Maplewood was more populous than South Orange, and periodically they raised concerns about it. It wasn’t only pride -- lack of firstclass post office status meant that mail delivery was delayed by a day or two, and it also meant that Maplewood, unlike neighboring Millburn and South Orange, did not appear on maps.
On Dec. 21, 1923, a letter to the editor of the Maplewood Record headlined “New Post Office Maplewood Need, Says Resident,” noted that “with the stacks of mail in view, it would seem apparent that a much larger office is needed.”
A new post office opened in a storefront at 92 Baker Street in April 1926, and moved to bigger quarters across the street in 1937 (adjacent to the lot where Harry Baker’s store had been). Citizens and organizations began to complain more vociferously, urging Township officials to push for Maplewood to be granted the status of a first class post office.
The campaign began in earnest in 1938, when the Woman’s Club of Maplewood passed a resolution to start petitions to push for a new post office building and separation from South Orange. An article in the Maplewood News noted,
Mail deliveries are slow and frequently are a day behind the deliveries in neighboring town. …The present post office is terrible.…It’s a reflection on a system which gives Maplewood, a community of 25,000 people, a third class post office.
The Woman’s Club’s initiative was supported by the Maplewood Civic Association, the Lions Club and other local groups. In early 1939 a petition signed by 4,133 residents was sent to the U.S. Post Office Department, only to be denied, with no reason given.
Newly elected Congressman Robert Kean then joined the campaign, and discovered that the Post Office Department had all sorts of misinformation about the town, including the assertion that Maplewood had no self-government and was run by a committee from several towns. In 1941, Rep. Kean introduced a bill in Congress to seek first-class status for the town, but the war caused it to be tabled for several years. A new appeal by the Congressman in 1945 also was turned down, with no reason provided. He tried again in 1947, working with the Appropriations Committee. This time a local resident recruited a friend, a Congressman from North Dakota, to help Mr. Kean gain the Congressional Committee support he needed to have the funds appropriated for a first-class post office and postmaster. Finally, in July 1947, Rep. Kean announced that the request was granted, and Maplewood would have a First Class post office at last. Before the end of the year, O. Vincent McNany was appointed Acting Postmaster, and in June 1949, he became the first official Maplewood Postmaster since 1912. It had taken only 132 years from the first petition by the citizens of Jefferson Village.
Then the campaign began for a new free-standing post office building that would reflect the importance of this First Class town.
Maplewood’s Post Office – Present and Future
Beginning in 1949, the General Services Administration (GSA), through the Office of the Supervising Architect, was responsible for public buildings. The GSA relied heavily on private architectural firms to design new post office buildings. The GSA provided utilitarian designs and specifications that emphasized efficiency in plan and a lack of ornament and extraneous elements. In 1954, Post Office projects were transferred to the U.S. Post Office Department, which continued the use of standardized plans that epitomized the “form follows function” dictates of the International Style.
Alfred O. Pollitt (1892-1958), a Maplewood architect, was selected to design the Maplewood Post Office in 1949. It took nine years, but finally in 1958 a new 16,000-square-foot facility opened to great fanfare – including a parade attended by 4,000 people -- at 160 Maplewood Avenue. The rectangular form of the building and the broad expanse of windows set into a grid of aluminum covering much of the façade reflect the influence of the International Style in post-World War II public buildings. Nothing projects from the plane of the building—there are no moldings or sills. Originally there were not even exterior steps at the entrance. Elements of the building are reduced to a grid and panels. The warm beige color of the brick and the blue-green granite trim soften the effect of the hard lines of the building’s design. The Maplecrest branch of the post office, on Springfield Avenue, which was designed by Pollitt at the same time, echoed the International Style on a smaller scale in its façade.
Between 1910 and 1958 the post office in Maplewood Village had moved three times before coming to rest for more than 50 years in its current location. And now it is about to move again. The USPS lease on the property has run out and the Postal Service has decided that the building is too large for its current needs. (The Maplecrest branch will remain for now.) A decision on a new location for, perhaps, a storefront operation, has not yet been made. The town plans to demolish the building and develop the site, which is adjacent to the Maplewood train station, as a multi-use site with retail below and apartments above.