Orange County Post Offices and Postmasters - 1861-1971
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, securing a post office was seen as an important step forward for any town. It suggested prominence and permanence, and gave government recognition to a new community.
In the same way, the role of postmaster was a sign of character and commitment to the community. In small towns and crossroads settlements, the job often fell to a local storekeeper, and the post office was located in their store. In larger communities, the job was valued for its status as much as for its salary.
These were the days when the role of postmaster was a political appointment, often used by parties and politicians to reward their supporters. Thus we see, for example, a surprising number of newspapermen receiving appointments. (Historian Jim Sleeper once joked that the Santa Ana Post Office was merely the “Old Editor’s Home.”) Postmasters for smaller post officers were simply appointed by the Postmaster General, but the larger communities (including many in Orange County), postmasters were nominated by the President – generally on the recommendation of the local Congressman – and had to be approved by the U.S. Senate. So on the theory that “to the victor belongs the spoils,” when a different party came into power in the White House, Republican postmasters were replaced with Democrats – or vice versa.
Calls to reform this system began in the 1880s, with some smaller post offices being shifted to a civil service system, based on ability rather than party loyalty. But it was not until 1969 that all postmasters were placed until civil service rules. Two years later, the old Post Office Department was dissolved and the U.S. Postal Service took charge of America’s mails. While postal service remains valuable to any community, the old prestige was gone.
Surprisingly, the Post Office Department also took it on itself to control the names of individual post offices, sometimes to the frustration of the local communities. Naturally (to avoid confusion) there could only be one post office of a particular name in a single state; but the department would also sometimes refuse similar names. For a time, beginning in 1894, they also generally insisted on one-word names, and even sometimes arbitrarily changed existing names.
One explanation for the number of small post offices that once dotted the county is that in the early days, customers had to come to the post office to collect their mail, so even a few miles in the horse and buggy days was an inconvenience. With the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) around 1900, the Post Office Department began a program of shutting down many smaller post offices around the country. Some communities in Orange County were able to petition to get their post office back, but other offices disappeared forever, or were reduced to a branch or station of a larger post office.
The first history of Orange County’s post offices was compiled by Fullerton pioneer Charles S. Knowlton which he published as a little booklet, Post Offices of Orange County, California, Past and Present, in 1947. It was later reprinted in volume 2 of The Historical Volume and Reference Works for Orange County (1963). While his dates (as he readily admitted) were at times a little shaky, Knowlton’s booklet still contains some interesting details. Two statewide source books have also been published. Walter Frickstad, A Century of California Post Offices (1955) is the old classic; H.E. Salley’s History of California Post Offices (2nd edition, edited by Edward Patera, 1992) is more modern and more complete. Best of all, the appointment records of the Post Office Department from 1832 to 1971 have now been digitized and are available via Ancestry.com.
The official dates for the opening and closing of Orange County’s post offices listed here are taken from the records of the Post Office Department and checked against the local newspapers. It was not unusual in the early days that the official date for the creation of a post office and its actual opening were weeks apart. As for postmasters, a sudden change in postmaster (through death or resignation) would often be filled by an “acting” appointee prior to their official approval in Washington. Except where the acting postmaster did not receive the final appointment, those changes have not been noted here.
Biographical material on the local postmasters comes from newspapers, directories, and books and articles on local communities. No attempt has been made here to identify all the different locations for the various local post offices – a large (though interesting) project in and of itself.
Click on the highlighted post office listings for more information, including brief biographies of some of their early postmasters.
Balisle (January 8, 1927 - November 15, 1928) – name changed to Balboa Island
Bay City (August 6, 1904 - January 24, 1914) – name changed to Seal Beach
Capistrano see San Juan Capistrano
Capistrano Beach (October 28, 1925 - March 1, 1931; January 1, 1948 - December 27, 1968) – name changed to Doheny Park
Doheny Park (March 1, 1931 - January 1, 1948) – name changed back to Capistrano Beach
Earlham (March 2, 1887 - January 25, 1888) – name changed to El Modena
El Toro (May 29, 1888- ) – serves the City of Lake Forest
Harbor (April 25, 1914 - June 24, 1915) – name changed to Gloryetta
Harper (March 25, 1909 - May 11, 1920) – name changed to Costa Mesa
Irvine (March 17, 1914 - October 1, 1965) – name changed to East Irvine
Irvine (March 12, 1988- )
Myford (May 20, 1899 - March 17, 1914) – name changed to Irvine
Talbert (November 15, 1899 - August 15, 1907) – served Fountain Valley
Three Arches (November 8, 1933 - December 1, 1934) – name changed to South Laguna
Communities with Branch Post Offices or Post Office Stations
Anaheim Hills – established October 1, 1984 as a station of Anaheim.
La Palma – established April 9, 1966 as a branch of Buena Park; discontinued September 30, 1977.
Laguna Hills – established as a station of Laguna Beach, January 1, 1964; advanced from station to branch before the end of the year.
Laguna Niguel – established January 2, 1966 as a station of South Laguna (in the Monarch Bay Drug Store); later a branch of Laguna Beach.
Leisure World – established May 1, 1963 as a station of Seal Beach; in 1970 the station was moved and renamed the Mariner station.
Mission Viejo – established March 19, 1966 as a branch of San Juan Capistrano. The Tustin News (12-30-1965) reports that Mission Viejo already had a post office in a tiny little building (but with a red-tile roof).
Ocean View – The Huntington Beach News (6-20-1924) reported that Ocean View was soon to have its own post office, but nothing was done until February 1, 1949 when a rural station was established by the Huntington Beach Post Office. It was discontinued in 1962.
Olinda – The oil town of Olinda never had a post office, but had to rely on rural route service from Fullerton. Worse, there was an Olinda Post Office in Shasta County where all mail addressed to Olinda, California had to be sent – even if it was mailed in Fullerton. “Postmaster Edwards has to forward all of this mail to Olinda, Shasta County, knowing that the mail is intended for the Olinda oil wells in this county. But he must comply with government regulations. In one day the past week more than forty letters were returned to Fullerton from [the] Olinda, Shasta County, post office.” (Santa Ana Register, 9-29-1914)
Rancho Santa Margarita – established in 1987 as a branch of San Juan Capistrano.
Rossmoor – established August 1, 1962 as a branch of Los Alamitos; it was not in operation from about 1973-78 when it was re-established, surviving until 1988.
Rossmoor Center – established July 1, 1975 as a station of Seal Beach; discontinued September 9, 1977.