The Post Office
The significance of the early postal service to the economic and political stability of the young nation was highlighted by the appointment of Benjamin Franklin, already a prominent figure, as the first postmaster general by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, several years before the Constitution even would be ratified. Beyond helping to hold together the disparate political strains of the young republic, during the 1800s the ever-growing U.S. mail service was instrumental to the nation’s westward expansion. Long before the telegraph and the railroad, the U.S. mail was the premiere, if not only, reliable means of communication across the vast undeveloped regions of the American West. In its pursuit of ever-expanding routes and ever-faster means of covering them, the Post Office was instrumental in pioneering new forms of transportation and expanding upon existing ones, using horses, steamboats, trains, and airplanes to forge and then maintain lines of communications with far-flung, distant outposts.
With the USPS spun off as an independent agency in the 1970s, and with the rise of commercial competition from private shipping companies like the United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx, the USPS increasingly has had to deal with the reality of market forces, including the loss of its onetime monopoly on many mail-delivery routes. Accordingly, greater attention has been paid of late to the USPS as a brand, represented most prominently by the USPS logo, which represents not only on the long, distinguished history of the postal service specifically but also of America more broadly.
About The USPS Logo
Today’s “sonic eagle” USPS logo replaced the original “standing eagle” design in 1993 as part of an effort to modernize not only the USPS itself but also the public’s perception of it. This more contemporary design has proven even more enduring than the original USPS logo, as it continues to be in widespread use some 25 years later, eclipsing the standing eagle’s 23 years of service.Before the Postal Reorganization Act reestablished the old Post Office Department as an independent agency known as the United States Postal Service (USPS) in 1970, the mail service had been represented for some 130 years by the image of a speeding rider on horseback, reminiscent of the old Pony Express days so many of us grew up reading about in our history books. In 1970, the newly formed USPS adopted the so-called “standing eagle” as its official seal, and, even following the introduction of the “sonic eagle” as the corporate USPS logo in 1993, the standing eagle remains the official seal of the USPS.
The History And Evolution Of The USPS Logo
Prior to the Postal Reorganization Act in 1970, the United States Postal Service (USPS) was known simply as the Post Office Department. In line with the influence of classical western thought on the nation’s founders, in the department’s earliest days its official seal depicted Mercury, the wing-footed messenger of the Ancient Roman gods.
In 1837, the Post Office Department revised its seal to reflect a more contemporary (for its time) image: that of a rider atop a horse in full stride, surrounded by the words “Post Office Department” and “United States of America”. Though it reflected an actual (and prominent) means of postal delivery at the time of its inception, this rider-on-a-horse logo would persist as the Post Office Department’s official seal for more than a century: well after the horse had been supplanted by the train, airplane, and automobile as a primary means of mail delivery.
By the time that the Post Office Department became the United States Postal Service (USPS) in 1970, this rider-on-a-horse logo had evolved from a contemporary image representing speed, mobility, and geographic range into a historical reference to the mail service’s legendary legacy and, presumably, the kind of spirit that still persisted in the organization even to that day, long after the intrepid rider traversing the American plains had been replaced by a truck driver crossing the country with the ease and regularity of a daily commute.
With the passage of the Postal Reorganization Act in 1970, what previously had the Post Office Department became the United States Postal Service (USPS), as it continues to be known today. With this reorganization as a new, independent agency, the USPS set about creating a brand for itself, adopting as its official seal the so-called “standing eagle” design that many still recognize today.
Although it left behind both the style and imagery of the long-standing Post Office Department horse-and-rider seal, the USPS’s original “standing eagle” design continued to strongly, if symbolically, represent its associations with the United States government. Like an American flag adorned with a gold-fringe, the standing-eagle USPS logo featured bold red, white, and blue colors framed with gold lettering that states, “United States Postal Service” along with nine gold stars which line the bottom edge.
Within this gold frame is the profile of a bald eagle, one of the most prominent and lasting symbols of the United States, perched atop a solid red stripe which is followed underneath by a white band with the words “U.S. MAIL” featured prominently in black all-caps font. This lettering itself sits atop a blue stripe that rounds out the patriotic design and trifecta of national colors.
In 1993, the “standing eagle” USPS logo was updated to the sleeker, more contemporary “sonic eagle” design which continues to adorn millions of USPS packages, trucks, signs, and uniforms to this day. Like the standing eagle, the sonic eagle features a forward gaze that is meant to symbolize the organization’s eye toward and role in creating the future, while the contours of the design give the viewer a sense that the eagle is in motion.
Unlike the standing-eagle design, the sonic eagle features a closeup image that contains the eagle’s head only, with the wings and the rest of the body merely implied. The sonic-eagle USPS logo’s sense of speed and rapid movement is emphasized by the forward-leaning italics of the all-caps blue text, which also is tilting in the direction of the eagle’s gaze.
Similarly, the eagle’s profile is framed within a parallelogram that also leans to the right: in the same direction as the italicized font and the eagle’s eyes. This seemingly simple choice of placing the eagle’s head within a forward-leaning parallelogram rather than in a rectangle lends a great deal to the logo’s depiction of speed, forward progress, and rapidity of movement, all of which the USPS wants its logo to express.
Unlike the older standing-eagle USPS logo, which included a total of 5 colors (red, white, blue, black, and gold), the newer sonic-eagle design reduces this number to three (red, white, and blue, including the white background). This more limited color pallette contributes to the greater simplicity, and sleekness, of the current USPS logo, while also lowering costs of reproduction, another reflection of the USPS increasing need to operate under traditional commercial considerations.
An examination of the history and evolution of the USPS logo demonstrates how our cultural imagery can shape, and be shaped by, the society in which it exists. Whereas the rider-on-horse seal of the old Post Office Department was a contemporary depiction of speed and perseverance at the time of its creation, still in use more than a century later, it had come to represent the agency’s proud historical legacy and its significant role in shaping the modern America.
Alternatively, the current sonic-eagle design of the USPS logo, with its sleek lines and contemporary minimalism, seeks to cultivate a sense of forward-looking, cutting-edge innovation while using the conventional, historically based imagery of the eagle (if in a decidedly modern depiction) to harken back to a long history of patriotic service to the nation.
In the unique case of a seal or logo that persists across centuries as the USPS logo has, we are able to see the manner in which the symbolism evolves, becoming as much if not more of a reflection of the society in which it is based than anything intrinsic to the imagery itself. Much as the popular interpretations of Shakespearean plays vary from generation to generation based on the cultural stylings and influences of the age, corporate imagery in the form of logos and the like are highly dependent on the society in which they exist to provide the cultural subtext to their symbol-based shorthand.
In the instance of the Post Office Department and its rider-on-horse seal, the evolution was smooth and advantageous to the image the postal service strove to cultivate of itself, not only to its clientele but to its own employees. However, such luck is not guaranteed, and one must always remain aware of shifting cultural norms, lest an aging logo be interpreted in a negative way by an ever-evolving audience.