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Why Can't You Start Your Own Post Office?

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As more and more Americans embrace email and other communication technologies, the U.S. Postal Service has absorbed the hit. The agency lost an estimated $10 billion in 2011 and expects to top that this year, leaving many analysts to wonder how long it can hold on. So, what’s keeping you from starting a competing service?

Well, the law.

Back in 1792, Congress passed a series of reforms known as the Private Express Statutes, which make it difficult for Mom and Pop to start their own Pony Express. The restrictions used fines to discourage anyone from privately carrying letters for compensation.

How do those rascals at FedEx get away with it? There are a few loopholes. Congress allows letters that are “extremely urgent” to be transported privately. That’s how carriers like DHL get to run their businesses. Additionally, the USPS is perfectly happy to let private carriers transport letters, as long as the packages bear official postage that’s been properly canceled. (In other words, you can deliver the mail in place of the Postal Service as long as the USPS gets the money for the stamps.)

Has Anybody Tried?

They sure have. Political radical and reformer Lysander Spooner did just that in 1844 by opening the American Letter Mail Company. Spooner felt that the postal monopoly was unconstitutional since the Constitution only gave Congress “the power to establish post offices and post roads” without mentioning any sort of exclusivity. Furthermore, Spooner was pretty sure he could beat the USPS on price; he aimed to cut the price of a stamp from 12 cents to a nickel.

Spooner was primarily interesting in making a political point about the government’s anticompetitive behavior, but the American Letter Mail Company had quite a bit of early success. Spooner opened offices in major East Coast cities and used both ships and railroads to deliver letters in a timely, inexpensive fashion. Customers obviously loved the cut-rate prices and faster delivery times, and Spooner quickly became a worthy rival for the USPS.

Of course, the government didn’t make things easier for him. It tried to punish railroad owners who transported Spooner’s messengers, and Spooner even received threats of jail time for circumventing the government’s monopoly. He kept delivering mail, though, and eventually the USPS had to slash its own prices to keep up. The price of a stamp dropped all the way down to a nickel.

Spooner wasn’t finished, though. He lowered his rates again and kept mailing letters. By 1851 Congress finally had to intervene with new laws to protect the postal monopoly and another rate cut, this one down to three cents per stamp. The new measures finally put Spooner out of business, but his upstart postal service had helped reduce the price of stamps by 75 percent. In the meantime, other private carriers had been able to quietly pull in big profits of their own while Spooner had diverted the government’s attention.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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