Famous Sayings: #103 — ‘Neither Snow, nor Rain …’

May 7, 2018

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

famous sayings, neither snow, nor rain, United States Postal Service, unofficial motto, Herodotus, Persian Wars, The Histories
Pictured is part of the engraved passage on part of the James A. Farley post office building in New York City. Image via Flickr by Kevan.

As many of you can guess, this phrase is connected to the United States Postal Service. The USPS was founded in 1775 when Benjamin Franklin served as its first postmaster general.

Today, the United States Postal Service is one important topic that is often overlooked, but we need to talk about it because of the purpose it serves and what some people want to do with it. The United States Postal Service currently employs 644,124 people, it has 157,328,676 delivery sites and 23,939 vehicles, and the USPS is responsible for delivering/processing billions of pieces of mail daily (VICE). Even though deliveries are carried out Monday through Saturday, the post office runs all year-round.

Also, while the USPS gets a lot of flak for lazy workers, disgruntled workers, and damaged packages, it is more efficient than services like UPS and FedEx and its services are cheaper. Additionally, The USPS delivers in unincorporated lands, unlike the other services, and it is an independent federal department.

With that in mind, I would like to look at what is considered the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service and get to the bottom of why it has become synonymous with the hardworking people who have worked for this government department.

Where Did the Phrase Originate?

Believe it or not, the USPS has no official motto. However, like most U.S. agencies and departments, it has a mission. The mission of the postal service can be found in Section 101(a) of Title 39 of the U.S. Code, which is also known as the Postal Reorganization Act (“Postal Service Mission”):

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

Most people who have heard of the motto “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow …” believe that is the official motto of the United States Postal Service, but that phrase actually comes from Volume 4, Book 8, paragraph 98 of The Histories by Herodotus (“1439”). He was talking about the mounted courier system set up by the Persian King Darius. The following passage was translated by A.D. Godley in 1924:

It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.

Who Was Herodotus?

Herodotus, who was born in Mesopotamia around the 5th century B.C., composed oral histories into a work simply called The Histories. While the purpose of the work was to outline the causes and events of the Greek-Persian wars, the work begins with a story about Lydian succession because it had a loose connection to the Persians.

The Histories has major flaws, namely the mixture of facts and fiction. Herodotus put those on equal footing because he sought not only to inform but to entertain. Even though that is a cause to criticize Herodotus, Damen argues both the facts and fiction offered value for the reader because the former provided a basis for the study of history and the latter informs us of how propaganda worked, and it informs us of the value systems ancient civilizations had.

More importantly, Herodotus’s recording of the history of the Persian wars (492-479 B.C.) allows us to see how the Greeks’ victories altered the course of its history as well as the history of Europe. Although it was unclear what Darius, or his son Xerces, wanted with Greece (which didn’t have mineral or many riches), Greece was between Persia and Rome. If the Persians had reached Rome, they may have wiped out its leaders and prevented the Roman empire from forming. If Greece was taken over by the Persians, the Greeks would not have had their liberty and it may have been likely that they never have created philosophy, drama, art, or architecture (Damen).

How Did ‘Neither Snow, Nor Rain …’ Become the USPS’ Unofficial Motto?

One version of the phrase is the following:

Neither ran, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds.

However, that is an alteration of the translation of Herodotus’s writings.

The phrase we know is what you’ll find at the top of this entry and it was chosen for the inscription on the New York City Post Office on 8th Avenue by William Mitchell Kendall. At the time, Kendall was an architect from the firm of McKim, Mead & White, which designed that post office. Kendall’s father was a classics scholar and the son read Greek for pleasure. The inscription on the NYC post office was modified from Harvard Professor Georg Herbert Palmer’s translation (“Post Office Mission”).

Why Did I Choose This Saying for This Week?

The United States Postal Service is in the news because, in early 2018, Donald Trump slammed Amazon for not paying taxes at all for 2017 and accused the business of cheating the USPS, which is responsible for approximately 40% of Amazon’s package deliveries. The terms of the deal the USPS has with Amazon are not exactly public, but Trump could get to the bottom of things since he’s in the position to do that.

Currently, the governing board of directors for the United States Postal Service is understaffed, and it’s been that way since 2010. As of today, the United States Postal Services’ governing board of directors only consisted of two people: Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan and Deputy Postmaster General Ronald A. Stroman. They form Temporary Emergency Committee.

United States Postal Service, board of directors, famous sayings

(The BOD needs at least four people to form a quorum. It lost that quorum in 2014 and its final appointed governor in December 2016.)

The USPS Board of governors is like a corporate board of directors because it is responsible for setting long-term goals for the USPS, controlling expenses, writing policies, and deciding how to invest in the postal service’s future. Trump nominated 3 people in October 2017, but they await Senate approval (Selyukh). A real danger is that Trump may appoint some shady people on the board who will move to privatize the service.

The main problem the USPS faces right now is legislation passed in 2006 that requires it to have enough funds for future retirees 75 years in the future. That’s ridiculous. Right now, the postal service has fallen behind because it is unable to pay for future retirees, which costs the service $5.5 billion a year (Selyukh). The USPS is already struggling to adapt due to email and other advances in technology.

Where Did I First Hear This Phrase?

I might be giving something away with this, but I believe I heard a version of the postman’s unofficial motto on a show called Out of Control. It was an old show starring Dave Coulier that used to air on Nickelodeon. Instead of a postman, there was a mail lady who appeared on one episode that was focused on the mail delivery service.

Did You Know?

Here are a few extra facts about the United States Post Office:

About the NYC Post Office

The New York City Post Office was renamed after James A. Farley in six years after his 1976 death. Farley served as in Post Master General the United States from March 4, 1933, to September 1940. Farley, a Democrat who was active in New York politics, helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt win election as governor in 1928 and helped FDR defeat incumbent president Herbert Hoover in 1932. FDR named Farley as the 53rd Post Master General in 1933.

During his tenure as Post Master General, Farley oversaw a program that was aimed at saving the jobs of postal workers amid massive revenue losses and working within the frame of the New Deal in order to stimulate the economy. That plan included the construction of new buildings and the commission of artwork for those buildings. One building that was constructed during this time was the new headquarters for the Post Office Department which occupied the entire block between 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (“James A. Farley”).

The building was originally built in 1912 but in 1934, it doubled in size under Farley, who was the Postmaster General at the time. The building now occupies two full city blocks (which is eight acres) “and boasts the largest giant-order Corinthian colonnade in the world.”

The post office once offered twenty-four-hour service, but that ended in 2009 due to increased competition from email and other technological advances. Customers can still meet their basic postal needs, which includes stamp purchases and having their packages weighed and mailed.

There were plans to convert much of the building into an Amtrak station named for the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The plans were first formed in the 1990s, but the languished until an infusion of stimulus funds in 2010. The completion of the first phase was targeted for 2016 (“James A. Farley Post Office”).

Ira Schnapp

Ira Schnapp is connected to the NYC Post Office.

Schnapp was an Austrian immigrant who came to the United States with his family sometime before 1910. Schnapp ultimately worked for DC Comics as the Senior Vice President of Advertising, but he may have been responsible for numerous logos seen on comic books from the company.

Before he worked for DC, Shnapp worked as an engraver. He was only in his teens when he deployed his skills in Trajan-style engraving for the New York City Library and the New York City Post Office. He engraved the unofficial motto for the post office on that building. He also designed postal stamps (Robby Reed).

The One Time the Post Office Broke Its Unofficial Motto

On Tuesday, January 27, 2015, the United States Postal Service suspended mail deliveries in Connecticut, Rhode Island, southeastern and western Massachusetts and Long Island, New York because of the blizzard in the Northeastern United States. According to USPS spokeswoman Christine Dugas, deliveries were scheduled to continue the 28th (“USPS Suspends”).

Works Cited

“1439: Herodotus (484?-425?). Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.” Bartleby. Web. Retrieved 7 May 2018. <http://www.bartleby.com/73/1439.html>.

Damen, Mark. “Herodotus and the Persian Wars.” USU 1320: History and Civilization. Utah State University. Online Lecture. 2016. Retrieved 6 May 2018. <https://www.usu.edu/markdamen/1320Hist&Civ/chapters/02HEROD.htm>.

“Postal Service Mission and ‘Motto.’” United States Postal Service. Oct 1999. PDF. Retrieved 6 May 2018. <https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/mission-motto.pdf>.

“James A. Farley.” United States Postal Service. March 2005. PDF. Retrieved 19 Apr 2018. <https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/pmg-farley.pdf>.

“James A. Farley Post Office.” The Official Guide to New York City. NYC & Co, Inc. Web. Retrieved 29 Apr 2018. <https://www.nycgo.com/attractions/james-a.-farley-post-office-midtown-west>.

“Members of the Board of Governors.” United States Postal Service. Web. Retrieved 7 May 2018. <https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/leadership/board-governors-bios.htm#p=1>.

Robby Reed. “The Visionary (Part 1).” Dial B for Blog. Volume One, Issue 372. Web Magazine. Retrieved 6 May 2018. <http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/372/>.

Selyukh, Alina. “As Trump Attacks Amazon-Postal Service Ties, He Fails To Fill Postal Governing Board.” National Public Radio (NPR). 3 Apr 2018. Web. <https://www.npr.org/2018/04/03/598854059/as-trump-attacks-amazon-postal-service-ties-he-fails-to-fill-postal-governing-bo>.

Various. “Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Gloom of night.” The Phrase Finder. 14 Oct 2006. Online Forum. Retrieved 29 Apr 2018. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/50/messages/254.html>.

Via the Associated Press. “USPS suspends mail service in large swath of Northeast.” The Boston Globe. 27 Jan 2015. Web. Retrieved 6 May 2018. <https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/01/27/mail/mCj1avGrm9yXUygD3GWWyN/story.html>.

VICE News. “Bernie Sanders Has A Plan To Save The Postal Service (HBO).” YouTube. 18 Apr 2018. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJDT1M0VfLw>.


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