"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
-- Inscription, New York City post office, adapted from Herodotus,
Greek historian and traveler (484 B.C. - 430 B.C.)

postman california
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A mail carrier delivers letters in Modesto, Calif.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) employs roughly 700,000 people who work to ensure that 213 billion pieces of mail are delivered to 146 million addresses each year. Those are big numbers for a big organization with a long history. Where would this country be without its postal service? It might seem that, with the Internet, fax machines and the number of commercial package delivery companies, we could get along fine without our local post offices. The USPS has felt the effects of new technologies and the electronic highway, but the volume of mail it handles each year is actually increasing. In 2002, the USPS handled roughly 202,821,900,000 pieces of mail. In 2004, that number was 206,105,600,000 and in 2006, it was 213,137,700,000. But even though the numbers are still going up, the USPS is planning new strategies for the day they drop.

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The USPS is an independent establishment of the executive branch of the United States government. It is not supported by tax dollars -- it operates as a business, with total revenue in 2006 of $72.8 billion. It is governed by a board of governors made up of the postmaster general, the deputy postmaster general and nine governors who are appointed by the president (with the advice and consent of the Senate). The USPS competes for business in the communications, distribution, delivery, advertising and retail markets.

In this article, we'll talk about the Postal Service, its history, how it operates, and how your letter gets from one place to another.