Recently Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield, who left a highly successful business career in Michigan to join President Eisenhower’s Cabinet, was discussing the size of the United States Post Office Department. With a rueful smile he recalled his reaction to the Department’s sprawling dimensions on the day he assumed the job of No. 1 postman.
“I walked into my office alone,” he told me, “and received my first surprise. That office was overwhelming—almost as big as a basketball court! After a hike around the room I sat at my desk and picked up an organizational chart.
“The chart gave me another surprise, for not until then did I realize the full magnitude of the Post Office. I thought, ‘Five hundred thousand employees! Why, this organization must be as large as General Motors!'”
It is just as large, in fact, and in some respects far larger. lncluding all divisions, the automotive giant employs more people (517,000), but no company on earth can match the extent of the Post Office’s far-flung operations or approach the number of transactions it conducts with the public.
Mail volume grows rapidly
Few comparisons could have been more meaningful to the new Postmaster General, in private life a General Motors (Chevrolet) automobile distributor. And today no one knows the significance of that comparison better than the Department’s hard-working executive, called “the General” by his associates.
During 1954 Americans will deluge General Summerfield’s army of postmen with a record 54 billion items, more mail than is sent by the rest of the world combined.
Since 1940 United States mail volume has nearly doubled, for an average growth of about seven percent each year. And still the upward spiral continues.
Obviously, the size of the Postmaster General’s private basketball court is entirely consistent with the size of his Department and his job.
Rarely, indeed, does the Post Office undertake anything on a small scale. Just consider a few of its rotund, jumbo-size operational figures.
The Department maintains more than 40,000 post offices. lts current income exceeds $2,300,000,000 a year. Its mail routes total approximately 2,250,000 miles. They reach every hamlet in the Nation, no matter how remote, and link the United States with countries around the globe.
Postmen on their appointed rounds use 27,000 Government-owned or rented vehicles. Their office-tied colleagues sell 23 billion stamps each year and handle more than 900 million “special service” transactions, such as issuing money orders and registering letters.
Postal savings exceed two billion
The Postal Savings System, with deposits of S2,341,000,000, is one of the world’s largest savings banks, and the Department’s rental program—22,800 leased buildings—makes our Post Office the nation’s largest real-estate operator and tenant.
Somehow amid these varied pursuits the Department finds time for a number of odd jobs. It sells internal revenue stamps for Federal tax payments on property transfers and migratory bird stamps that are attached to hunting licenses. It manufactures and repairs locks and mailbags—and even distributes flags for the coffins of deceased veterans. (Here’s how the Postal Service has overcome crises for more than two and a half centuries.)
Postmaster General Summerfield describes his charge in this fashion:
“Actually, the Post Office is a combination of a delivery service, a bank, an insurance and collecting agency, a license bureau, a printing office, and an information center.
“It is also the greatest as well as the most economical of all the social services in our modern society. No other agency of government is so close to the daily life of each community or so personal in its relations with our people.”
Yet most of us are inclined to take the postal service pretty much for granted. We mail our letters of love, sympathy, friendship, or business and seldom give their safe delivery a second thought.
How, then, does the omnipresent but little known Post Office operate? How does it move the paper blizzard that engulfs it daily?
Seeking the answers, I visited post offices large and small, talked to scores of officials, and traveled with the mail afoot, on horse back, in rail and highway post offices, and by helicopter.
I found the service astir with change. The Postmaster General and his key aides are pressing a vigorous modernization program to cope with the increasing work load.
Seven bureaus operate Postal System
The Department keeps abreast of its job through the well-integrated work of seven large Bureaus: Operations, which supervises post offices and carriers: Transportation; Finance; Facilities, responsible for real estate, purchases, and vehicles; Personnel; the Controller: and the Chief Postal Inspector’s Office. Except for the last two, both specialized branches, all the Bureaus are headed by former executives of large business firms.
For a firsthand view of the flood tide of mail, officials conducted me on attic-to-basement tours of the Nation’s two largest post offices, New York and Chicago. Together they handle more than 7.5 billion pieces of mail a year and yield 15 percent of the Department’s total revenue.
New York, ranking No. 1, boasts perhaps the most famous post office building in the world, thanks to this inscription across its broad Eighth Avenue façade:
NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT STAYS THESE COURIERS FROM THE SWIFT COMPLETION OF THEIR APPOINTED ROUNDS
Thus wrote the Greek historian, Herodotus, about 430 B.C., in praise of mounted couriers employed by King Xerxe of Persia. The translation is by architect William Mitchell Kendall, who designed the building more than 40 years ago.
Since then the quotation has become world famous. Many persons, both here and abroad, believe that it is the Department’s official motto. Actually, the Department does not have an official slogan.
‘Twas the week before Christmas when I visited the Big City, and its citizens were posting mail at the rate of 25 million pieces every 24 hours. Postal employment, normally 36,000, had jumped to 52,000. Experienced employees were working overtime. (These famous people also delivered the mail.)
Peter J. McEntee, an assistant general superintendent, acted as my host. First, for an over-all general impression, we trudged around and then through the huge General Post Office.
Let’s assume you are walking with us.
Post office resembles a factory
It’s late afternoon; the day’s mail volume is nearing a peak. Outside the building big olive-drab trucks push their tail gates up to the high unloading platform. Workmen swarm aboard and toss out scores of sacks crammed with letters.
Foremen shout commands, and quick hands pile mounds of mail on big wagons. Then off go the wagons, some pushed by workmen, others pulled by tractors insistently beeping with their horns for right of way.
Retreating inside, you find yourself in a world of mechanical gadgetry. Now you are walking beneath a maze of conveyor belts bearing streams of letters. A moment later you are watching hundreds of envelopes whiz through canceling machines. On another floor you see parcels cascading in a brown flood down a huge metal chute—”Niagara Falls,” workmen call it.
Your impression? A strange kind of factory, for that’s essentially what a large post office is. And possibly you conclude that the postage stamp, most prosaic of purchases, may well be the world’s best bargain.
Later I examined in detail a particular phase of mail operation, the adventures of outbound letters brought to the General Post Office for processing and shipment.
From unloading platforms wagons rolled onto a broad mezzanine above the outgoingmail floor, where workmen emptied bags on tables. I watched clerks sort out airmail and metered letters, then toss them to overhead conveyors bound for other distribution points. They dumped stamped mail into gravity bins, or “hoppers.”
Beneath the mezzanine letters tumbled from bins onto “face-up” tables. Dextrous clerks separated the envelopes by sizes —”shorts” and “longs”—and fed them via still other conveyors to cancellation machines. Here city, date, and time of cancellation were automatically printed.
After cancellation, workmen trundled the letters on wheeled trays to the next process, separation. Pursuing the trays, Mr. McEntee and I walked down long aisles lined solidly with tall wooden cases, each containing dozens of pigeonholes bearing names of geographical locations. Clerks stuffed letters into holes with amazing rapidity.
“We call this the casing process,” Mr. McEntee explained, “and these men are making a primary separation. Look at the names above pigeonholes and you ‘II see that they are breaking the mail down by States and large cities, sometimes by mail routes.
“Later, much of this mail will go on to a secondary separation. Take New York State letters, for instance. We’ll segregate most of them by cities; the rest, for small towns, by routes.”
Clerks take semiannual exams
Many sorting clerks, he added, must know complicated “schemes,” or plans, for breakdown of mail to certain areas. Frequently they must memorize schedules for mail dispatch from cases to trains and airfields.
“Clerks with those responsibilities are given examinations twice a year,” Mr. McEntee concluded, “and they must score 95 percent perfect to pass.”
About 30 percent of letters brought to the outgoing-mail section from collection boxes and post office stations are for local delivery. Clerks segregate these letters during primary separation and move them to the “city side,” or incoming-mail section.
All post offices, large or small, use cases to separate mail. Obviously the procedure is time-consuming and costly, requiring tens of thousands of clerks. Postal officials constantly seek ways to introduce mechanization in the process.
Chicago has taken a step in that direction with its ingenious Sestak machine. To view it, I followed Joseph C. Schwarz, a senior assistant superintendent, out upon a long balcony where 50 men were casing mail.
I looked in vain for a machine.
“It’s below the balcony,” Mr. Schwarz said. “But first take a look at those cases.”
Not until then did I notice that letters vanished when clerks tossed them into pigeonholes. Closer inspection solved the mystery. Behind each hole yawned a gravity chute.
Letters borne like chips on a tide
Leaning over the balcony, I could see envelopes drop from the chutes, enter narrow channels separated by metal dikes, and then flow along a conveyor to separation bins, where they were automatically stacked.
“Each channel corresponds to a pigeonhole in one of these 50 identical cases,” Mr. Schwarz explained. “Whenever the men throw California letters, for instance, you can be sure those letters will end up downstairs in the California bin.
“Here’s the advantage. A man working a conventional case separates an average of 975 letters an hour. But he spends about 12 minutes of each hour cleaning out his pigeonholes and dispatching mail.
“Now take a Sestak clerk. He doesn’t have to strip his case, so he throws 1,275 letters an hour. And that really speeds up separation.”
John Sestak, a Chicago postal employee, devised the machine and built a prototype from scrap metal, mostly one-gallon fruit cans from the post office cafeteria. As yet, there are only two Sestaks in the entire service, one in Chicago and one in Washington, D. C.
But postal officials are looking beyond this device. They want a machine that will read addresses and separate mail far faster than human hands and eyes can function.
No, it’s not impossible. Deputy Postmaster General Charles R. Hook, Jr., told me:
“In a year or two we expect to have plans for an electronic device that will read typescript and give us a primary separation. Business mail is about 60 percent of first-class volume, and most of it is addressed by typewriter; so we have a promising field.
”But there is no way we can see to develop a machine that will read handwriting. You just can’t eliminate the human element entirely.
“If machines should make possible a reduction in employees, it will be done by not filling vacancies. No one will be fired.”
Meanwhile, the law requires many big customers of the Post Office to separate much of their second-, third-, and fourth-class mail. Some organizations, among them the National Geographic Society, also help our postmen by breaking down large first-class mailings.
In 1953 your Society dispatched nearly 4.S million pieces of first-class mail, most of it already separated according to postal specifications. This voluntary work saved the Washington, D. C., Post Office hundreds of hours of labor.
Leaving the Sestak machine, Mr. Schwarz and I sought the parcel post story.
In Chicago’s General Post Office building, conveyors lift outbound packages to a seventhfloor processing center. Mr. Schwarz had prepared me for a visit to this center with the laconic comment, “You’ll see a few packages.”
A few! There were an incredible number. They arrived by twin conveyors in a tawny flood high above the floor. At intervals electrically powered board sweeps, shaped like snowplows, pushed gently through the flood. Nudged from the belts, packages slithered down into big storage bins.
Mr. Schwarz pointed to men on a catwalk above our heads.
“They operate the boards, also these bins, or reservoirs. If we’re flooded with packages, we hold them here until employees catch up on the volume. Operators can release packages any time they get the word.”
Apparently word came, for the doors of several bins swung open like floodgates of a dam. Out streamed parcels to floor-level conveyors.
In the next room 148 clerks made a primary separation of the packages by tossing them into canvas tubs—the parcel post equivalent of letter casing. Boxes flew through the air like confetti in a breeze, but the clerks’ aim seemed unerring.
Packages stamped “Fragile” get special handling, as well as the myriad live creatures permitted by regulations: day-old fowl, baby alligators and turtles, honeybees, earthworms, frogs, goldfish, lizards.
All post offices have favorite stories about mishaps to these creatures. In New York clerks recall the time a beehive split open on an unloading platform. Enraged insects divebombed everyone in sight until Humane Society exterminators quelled the uprising.
In Chicago a foreman showed me this terse, tongue-in-check official damage report:
“We received a parcel, mailed from California to Massachusetts, which contained 30,000 ladybugs. United Air Lines employee states 20,000 were loose in the airplane, but it appears that the parcel had 29,000 left therein when dispatched. Parcel sealed, marked ‘Arrived in damaged condition,’ and forwarded to destination.”
Clerks have their own language
We were threading our way across the outgoing-mail floor when a big clerk leveled a finger in our direction and boomed:
“Send those bums over here!”
“Seems as if he knows us,” I ventured.
“Nope, he wants these,” Mr. Schwarz grinned, pointing to a pile of empty mail sacks. “We call them ‘bums.’ “
Clerks coin many such words and phrases. The “butcher book” is a record of registered letters found in the ordinary mail. When a work area is clear, “the floor’s a ballroom.” Stamps that fall from envelopes are “sheds.” Improperly addressed letters are “duds,” and the men who specialize in deciphering duds are “hard men” or “nixie clerks.”
Letters that cannot be readdressed, or returned to the sender, end up in the deadletter sections of large post offices. Each year approximately 23 million letters and one million packages meet that fate. Unclaimed cash found in these letters, averaging some $100,000 annually, goes into postal revenues; likewise $300,000 from the sale of merchandise.
Invariably the fault lies with the public: improper addressing, no return address, insecure packaging and wrapping.
Whimsical addresses deciphered
Fictional detectives seem pale in comparison with nixie clerks. Frequently these postal veterans match wits with wags who address letters in Morse code, in musical notes, by numbers corresponding to position of letters in the alphabet, with drawings, or with chemical symbols, such as H2Otown for Watertown.
Clerks are not required to decipher whimsical addresses, but they often do. Most of their trouble stems from misspelling and poor handwriting.
A nixie clerk showed me his tabulation of 197 spellings of Chicago, among them Chaquechico, Shehego, Zizabo, and Hizago. I saw letters in difficult scrawls addressed to “Tourtle Cleck, U.S.A.” (Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania): “Poki-hunter, I.” (Pocahontas, Iowa); and “Leven Hull, Id.” (Twin Falls, Idaho).
Articles spilled from containers and found loose in the mails often give employees their worst headaches. Lester Bricks, a New York official, recalls spending weary days tracking down the addressees for a human eye preserved in a jar of liquid and an urn containing human ashes.
When dispatched mail leaves our post offices, it passes into the vast realm of the Bureau of Transportation, jealous custodian of the time-honored slogan, “The mail must go through.” And, come hail or high water, it always does—by aircraft, rail, horseback, bus, truck, ship, dog team—in fact, by just about every means that man can conceive.
A vast Teletype network links Bureau representatives: if there is a transportation tie-up in one region, orders shoot out all over the country to reroute mail around the trouble.
Within the past year the Bureau has introduced a number of experimental innovations in mail handling. including the dispatch of first-class (3-cent) mail by air at no extra charge. European countries pioneered the practice. The United States followed suit in 1953, linking Chicago with Kew York City and Washington, D. C. Early in 1954 we added routes between these three northern cities and points in Florida. Recently a number of western communities were included.
The new service supplements, but does not displace, regular airmail. Your airmail letters are guaranteed transportation by plane, whereas the airlines contracted to carry 3-cent mail on a space-available basis. So far, however, they have found room for all the letters.
After World War II the Post Office introduced experimental helicopter airmail delivery in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Later the Department included Chicago and New York.
Chicago’s Helicopter Air Service, Inc., shuttles mail from dawn to dusk, six days a week, between Midway Airport and the roof of the General Post Office. This service also picks up and delivers mail to 32 suburban communities for 52 post offices.
Leapfrogging congestion, the company’s fleet of seven helicopters reduces suburban delivery time by as much as 24 hours.
When loaded with mail, the aircraft, all Bell 47-D models, have room only for the pilot. I rode to the post office in a training ship with operations manager Robert Angstadt. Throughout the 9-mile trip we flew formation with a companion copter delivering mail.
Flight route follows canal
Hurdling the airfield fence, we crossed a broad avenue, skirted a housing development, and pinwheeled up to an altitude of 500 feet. In a moment the sluggish, murky waters of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal appeared below. We banked gently and followed the shoreline.
Exposed as in tabletop-scale relief lay the industrial heart of a great city: directly below, a switching yard, its vast expanse neatly ruled with line upon line of freight cars: to our left, the plants of titans, such as International Harvester and Commonwealth Edison; to our right, the pens of union Stock Yards, a study in cubism.
Soon we passed the busy intersection of Cermak Road and Archer Avenue. Traffic moved steadily but slowly, it seemed, as we sped by at 75 miles an hour!
Now we were very near the post office. Ray Vyskocil, pilot of the other copter, flashed us a broad grin through his plastic canopy, then veered away to drop gently as a falling leaf onto the post office roof. We circled the building and joined him.
“Less than a 10-minute trip,” said Angstadt. “About average. If Ray’s mail had been brought by truck, it would have taken at least 40 minutes.”
Road carriers replace many trains
Over the past 25 years competition from air and highway transportation forced railroads to discontinue hundreds of passenger trains. Since practically all these trains carried mail, the Post Office faced schedule problems all over the Nation.
It solved them by replacing canceled trains with trucks and busline service. Later the Department introduced highway post offices, big, specially built vehicles fitted out like railway mail cars.
The program has been so successful that officials have canceled mail trains where road carriers gave better and cheaper service.
But, despite such trends, our railroads are still the backbone of the postal transportation system, carrying most of the 160 million pieces of mail which move through the system every 24 hours.
And still an elite group, though reduced in numbers in recent years, are the Nation’s 15,000 railway mail clerks, the men who separate much of the first-class mail while it travels. In doing so, they minimize handling time in post offices and speed delivery of your letters.
Rain was slanting down from grimy-looking cloud banks when I reported at the door of a railway mail car in Union Station, Washington, D. C. August W. Bedgar, foreman in charge, lowered a hand and pulled me aboard, bedraggled as a wet puppy.
“Been a member of the National Geographic Society many years,” he said. “Catch your breath, then look around, meet the others. We’re a 6-man crew today because of the Christmas rush. Normally these cars carry four men.”
I had never been aboard a railway mail car, but it looked familiar, very much like the outgoing-mail section of a small post office. At one end letter cases lined the walls. In the center, bolted to the floor, stood a long face-up table, flanked by mailbags hanging from racks and metal bins suspended from the ceiling. The other end of the car served as storage space.
Mr. Bedgar and his men carried snub-nosed .38-caliber pistols. I hoped I had come aboard with sterling character references!
Our train, bound for Jersey City, New Jersey, started with a lurch that sent me ricocheting from a wall. As we gained speed, I marveled at how easily the clerks maintained balance.
“Ever see how mail is picked up by a moving train? Better join Bob Pimm at the other end, or you’ll miss it,” the foreman suggested.
Bob, at 26 the youngest man aboard, pointed to a big iron hook hanging from a bar in the doorway.
“We call it a catcher arm,” he said. “When we make a pickup, I open the door and stick the arm outside. Pretty soon, whammo! I’ve got me a mailbag! Catch it on the fly from a crane beside the tracks.”
He glanced casually through a window. “Hyattsville. Maryland. That’s my signal.”
Bob donned a pair of goggles, slid the door back, looked out, paused, tossed a mail sack through the door with his left hand, and swung the catcher arm with his right. Suddenly a loud thwack filled the car, and the arm held a mailbag. Grinning broadly, Bob drew it inside.
Specialists sort big-city mail
Other clerks kept busy at sorting tasks. Mr. Bedgar separated mixed mail for midAtlantic and New England cities. G. L. Ford worked Pennsylvania letters. John Bosley specialized in a fine separation of New York City mail by zones and postal stations; H. L. Krieger had the same task for Philadelphia.
In the center of the car Harvey Kushner and Bob Pimm separated letter mail, taken aboard with the catcher arm, and newspapers.
As each clerk completed a separation, he tied his mail in bundles and gave them to Mr. Kushner, who tossed them into mail sacks labeled with points of destination. By the time we reached Jersey City and goodbyes were in order, all the 130 bags of mail taken aboard had either been distributed at stops or segregated for further routing.
Other clerks kept busy at sorting tasks. Mr. Bedgar separated mixed mail for midAtlantic and New England cities. G. L. Ford worked Pennsylvania letters. John Bosley specialized in a fine separation of New York City mail by zones and postal stations; H. L. Krieger had the same task for Philadelphia.
In the center of the car Harvey Kushner and Bob Pimm separated letter mail, taken aboard with the catcher arm, and newspapers.
As each clerk completed a separation, he tied his mail in bundles and gave them to Mr. Kushner, who tossed them into mail sacks labeled with points of destination. By the time we reached Jersey City and goodbyes were in order, all the 130 bags of mail taken aboard had either been distributed al stops or segregated for further routing.
Highway post offices—”hypos” in Department parlance—offer several advantages over their railroad counterparts. They are cheaper to operate. They go directly to post offices, saving the time and cost of hauling mail from railroad stations. And, unlike passenger trains, they run on schedules established by the Post Office to suit its convenience.
The first HPO route, between Washington, D.C., and Harrisonburg, Virginia, dates from 194I. Since then the number has grown to 123. In many areas, particularly in the West, communities celebrate the inaugural day of a highway post office with speeches, parades, and band music.
National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel and I witnessed such a celebration last winter when the Department opened a highway post office route between Philip and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Little Philip (population 810) arose en masse at dawn to see guests and postal officials aboard the bus. But first, leading citizens plied us with a breakfast embarrassing in its bounty.
Cowboys and Indians greet the bus
We drove in near-zero weather through endlessly rolling prairie, sere from the hand of winter. Crowds welcomed us at each rural town. Whooping cowboys milled about on horseback. Indians in full regalia extended greetings from the Sioux tribe. High-school bands blared bravely, though lips froze to instruments. Little drum majorettes pranced in scanty costumes, their teeth chattering like telegraph keys, their limbs a glacial blue. But they wouldn’t quit!
I was most impressed by the obvious gratitude of the townsfolk for their new service. They had come from miles around to see the gleaming bus. It was on exhibit at each stop, and people filed through its 35-foot length, staring, exclaiming in awe. Told it would speed mail delivery 12 to 24 hours, they shook hands with officials and smiled their thanks.
Often the mayors and postmasters of various towns rode with us for a stop or two. On one leg of the trip the bus carried 18 jovial, chattering passengers, and clerk Arthur Peirce had difficulty finding elbow room while separating and canceling mail.
All of us scribbled letters, using the backs of fellow passengers as writing desks. Mr. Peirce sold us stamped envelopes bearing a special cachet, or imprint, which outlined South Dakota’s boundaries and showed the route of our bus. Such envelopes, known as “first day covers,” are prized by collectors.
Some areas of the United States defy motorized transport of the mail. Even Philadelphia still has a few horse-drawn mail carts: they prove more efficient in narrow, congested streets. But usually old Dobbin carries postmen over rough routes in out-of-the-way places.
Just such a route, eight rugged miles long, connects the tiny towns of Chloe and Elmira in the hills of central West Virginia. There 60-year-old J. B. Vaughan, astride his pinto horse, Pat, delivers mail six days a week to about 200 hill folk.
Contractors operate “star” routes
Burt, as he likes to be called, is not a regular postal employee. He operates a “star,” or contract, route.
Postal contracts admonish private carriers to transport the mail with “celerity, certainty, and security.” Many years ago clerks, tired of copying the repetitious phrase, fell into the habit of drawing three stars to indicate the words: hence, star routes.
Today there are more than 12,000 star route contractors. Some operate large enterprises with fleets of motor vehicles; others, like Burt, work alone, doing jobs that would be uneconomical for the Post Office to undertake with regular employees.
Most farmers, however, receive their mail via Rural Free Delivery, a Department service employing more than 32,000 regular carriers who serve approximately nine million families.
Volkmar Wentzel and I rented horses one winter’s morning and rode with Burt along his route. The wind blew gently and warm, hinting at an early spring, and the route wound pleasantly along the base of a wooded ridge.
But the condition of the dirt road tempered our delight in the weather. Thawing snow and ice had turned the red earth into gumbo, so slippery that our horses had difficulty with their footing on the slopes. Wheel ruts indicated automobile traffic, but before long the route became all but impassable for motor vehicles. Most back-countrymen, Burt said, walked or rode horseback.
We passed several comfortable frame homes. Later, as the road steepened and the hills moved in, dwellings became small and weather-beaten, usually with unpainted board siding and tin or tar-paper roofs.
Occasionally Burt dropped letters in roadside boxes. Shaggy Hereford cattle grazed in narrow fields, but we saw few people.
Riding at a leisurely walk, Burt talked about his work:
“Had this route 13 years; I’ve ridden Pat the past 12.”
Did he ever bring in medicine for these people?
“Sometimes. Usually castor oil or Epsom salts. Anybody gets real sick, they take ‘im out to the hospital, but mostly they do their own doctorin’.
“Somebody dies, I often carry word out to the undertaker. I’m in a quartet that sings at all the funerals. Those days I hire a man to deliver the mail for me.”
Did he carry messages if people put them in their boxes?
“Well, if it’s important, I’ll take a note up the road. But I don’t let ’em seal it—against postal regulations….”
Mail-order catalogues add weight
“Dread mail-order catalogues. They all come on the same clay, seems like, and they’re awful heavy. Pat can only carry 47 pounds of mail in these saddle bags.”
We delivered letters at two 1-room elementary schools, where children greeted Pat like an old friend, and then climbed a 1,300-foot ridge. Here the narrow route could hardly be dignified by the word “road.” Woodland enclosed us; not a field or home lined the way. It seemed as if we were in another age, delivering mail through the backwoods of a still youthful nation.
Indian-file, the three of us wound down to Elmira (one house and a post office-general store) and then retraced our route. Unused to riding, I felt as if I were astride a dull razor. But Wentzel, to my chagrin, sat his horse in comfort all the way back to Chloe.
Returning to Washington, I called upon the Bureau of Facilities, housekeeper extraordinary, which provides logistic support for the armies of clerks and transportation employees. This Bureau manages approximately 3,200 Federally owned post offices, spends $32,000,000 a year for rental of space, services the huge fleets of motor vehicles, and buys everything the Department uses. Purchases may range from a lock part 1/16 of an inch long to a conveyor system two stories high and the diameter of a city block, such as the one at Cleveland, Ohio.
Many post offices are outmoded
But the Bureau’s biggest headache-inducing job lies in the acquisition and management of real estate. Congress has not appropriated funds for construction of new post offices since 1938. Meanwhile, the Department has grown too big for its plants. Most main post offices in the Nation’s 27 largest cities were built between 1908 and 1939, and all, our postal officials say, are now inadequate. At times mail must be stacked on platforms and sidewalks because there isn’t room inside.
When new quarters must be constructed, the Department induces private capital to foot the bills, then leases the properties, often for 20 years. Officials prefer this method to Federal construction, and say it’s cheaper.
The Bureau of Facilities has developed plans for a standardized ultramodern post office building. A research program is under way to determine the best places to put these new structures. Present thinking inclines to the use of small downtown post office stations for the convenience of the public, with processing centers in less congested areas.
The problem of bulk mail handling, both here and abroad, is relatively recent, dating from a successful fight for cheap postage waged on a world-wide scale in the 19th century. But the post, as an institution, goes back to ancient times.
China’s dynasties employed relay runners more than 2,000 years ago. Ancient Greece and Rome used couriers, as did the Inca and Maya Empires. The Bible contains references to a postal system: King David’s letter ordering the death of Uriah: Jezebel’s message that caused the murder of Naboth: Job’s lament, “Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away.”
The Persians’ courier system, which excited the admiration of Herodotus, seems to have been the model for other posts, including that of the Egyptians.
These communication systems, and many that followed, were for the use of rulers, not the public. In medieval Europe, cities, merchant guilds, even universities set up their own posts. Gradually, however, governments took over private ventures.
Sending or receiving a letter was fraught with chance in America’s early colonial years. Travelers and servants carried messages. Shipmasters, if so disposed, would take letters to England. They dumped return mail on the tables of coffeehouses: addressees, if lucky, got word of their letters and claimed them.
Several Colonies organized their own posts, but it was not until 1693 that an intercolonial system under English auspices came into being. Service was poor and rates were high. Many colonists evaded the monopoly by using private carriers.
Ben Franklin improved mail service
In 1753 Benjamin Franklin won appointment as joint Deputy Postmaster General for the Colonies. He increased the number of posts, introduced stagecoaches, started a packet service to England, and put the service on sound financial footing. Franklin lost his job prior to the Revolution and took on the organization of a postal service for the Revolutionary forces. Where before he had franked his envelopes with the words,” Free B. Franklin,” he now wrote, “B. Free Franklin.”
Samuel Osgood, first Postmaster General under the Constitution, employed a mere 75 postmasters when he took office in 1789. Eleven years later, when the Department moved to Washington, D. C., it had only nine men in its headquarters.
But the Post Office grew enormously as a restless people pushed toward the western sea. With growth came many innovations. In 1847 we began licking postage stamps, first introduced in England seven years previously. The registry system was born in 1855. Three years later we obtained street letter boxes and, in 1863, free city delivery.
Other new services followed: money orders, 1864: postal cards, 1873; special delivery, 1885: rural free delivery, 1896: postal savings, 1911: parcel post, 1913; airmail, 1918.
Meanwhile, a new organization, the Universal Postal Union, undertook a quiet revolution in the international field. Organized in 1874, the Union bound 22 nations, including the United States, in an agreement to forward members’ mail at standard transit rates. Actual delivery of foreign letters within member states would be free. This was a tremendous step, for previously international mail had been subject to a hodgepodge of restrictive treaties among individual nations.
Today the UPU serves every country on the face of the earth. A specialized agency of the United Nations, it maintains headquarters at Bern, Switzerland, where technicians assist members in amicable settlement of bills and disputes. At least once each five years, nations meet to revise their time-tested agreement.
Letters free to go anywhere
You benefit enormously from the work of the Union. Your letters to other countries can go anywhere, free of the passports and visas which restrict human travel. You prepay the message with a stamp, and the Post Office reimburses other nations for transit charges en route.
There is, however, one aspect of our own postal history in which no one takes pride.
During the past 115 years of operation your Post Office has been out of the red only 18 times. Deficits since World War II total a staggering $3,800,000,000. The interest alone on this sum costs taxpayers more than $100,000,000 a year.
Obviously the stamps and services we buy do not pay the cost of mail handling. But there is wide disagreement regarding which, if any, rates should be raised, and how much.
At this writing Congress is weighing the rate question while considering a Department proposal that would hike fees all along the line.
Postmaster General Summerfield believes his budget could, and should, be balanced, and he has taken a number of preliminary steps in that direction.
Several fees were raised by administrative action. Congress voted that its members, as well as Government bureaus, should pay for their mail instead of posting it free. Subsidies for airmail carriers were transferred from the Post Office to the Civil Aeronautics Board.
These steps, plus multimillion-dollar economies, have had a salutary effect upon Department finances. The deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1954, had been estimated at $746,000,000. Department officials now believe the red-ink figure will be about $400,000,000.
This is still far too high, Postmaster General Summerfield says. If proposed rate increases are granted, he thinks the deficit can be cut to less than $100,000,000.
Efficiency cuts costs
Meanwhile, the Department has moved to cut costs through greater operating efficiency. A new Bureau of Personnel is initiating modern safety, recruitment, and training programs. Operations has begun the task of decentralizing post office supervision. Work standards and streamlined accounting procedures have been devised.
To speed service, officials ordered later collection and window hours in major cities, introduced experimental stamp-vending machines at post office windows, and undertook a program for the development of more efficient light vehicles.
The Department even tried to do something about scratchy post office pens. As an experiment, post offices in Washington, D. C., and nearby Maryland bought handsome ballpoint models and chained them to lobby desks. But within a week the shiny new pens disappeared, torn from their moorings. The venture was written off as a noble failure.
Our Post Office Department, no matter how intricate its financial problems, can always count upon one sure money-maker, the Division of Philately.
Philately, or stamp collecting, is the most universal of hobbies. The United States alone has an estimated 12 million collectors. Many are steady customers of the Division’s Philatelic Agency in Washington, D. C., where current stamps are sold by mail order or at counters. Agency sales exceed 2,500,000 each year. No one knows how many stamps collectors buy at post offices, but officials delight in speculating that it must be a very large number.
Philately yields a tidy profit
“You see, we realize about 85 percent clear profit from philatelic sales,” beamed Robert E. Fellers, head of the Division of Philately. “Most of the stamps go into albums. Since they aren’t used as postage, no mail service is performed by the Department and we save money.”
Hobbyists take special delight in acquiring commemorative stamps, issued each year to honor organizations or to observe historic events. For example, the 1953 output included stamps for the tercentenary of New York City, the 50th anniversary of powered flight, and the 150th anniversary of Ohio’s statehood. Among organizations honored were the National Guard, the American Bar Association, and the Future Farmers of America. (Here’s why the “Farmers Market” stamp was so controversial.)
Stamp honors Alexander Graham Bell
Memorial stamps honor individuals. Collectors prize in particular a 1940 series featuring 35 famous Americans, among them Alexander Graham Bell. inventor of the telephone and president of the National Geographic Society from 1898 to 1903. His portrait appears on a 10 cent stamp.
Recently President Eisenhower dedicated a new 8-cent stamp, the first regular issue to bear the words “In God We Trust.” Postmaster General Summerfield ordered the design.
“Stamps should stimulate thinking,” he comments. “They represent the United States to people all over the world. Why shouldn’t they be symbolic of what this Nation stands for?”
He would also like to make them multicolored and more attractive.
At present all United States postage stamps are printed from steel plates bearing the impression of a hand-engraved master die. I saw this process at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D. C.
But hand engraving limits stamps to one and, occasionally, two colors. Rotogravure, a photo-chemical technique, permits four colors. The Postmaster GeneraI has asked the Bureau to experiment with rotogravure stamps.
Years ago a dubious public referred to stamps as “Government sticking plasters,” and loud were the ughs of distaste when tongues licked the unpalatable glue. Today that glue, a mixture of cassava and hybrid corn, is not only palatable but mildly nutritious.
Workmen brew the rust-red mixture in huge copper vats. After thorough stirring and hours of simmering, it is piped off to the presses. There I watched gooey rollers undercoat the stamps.
D.C. Tolson, superintendent of the Bureau’s stamp division, was rather apologetic when he led me into his big vault.
“Only have about $165,000,000 worth in here,” he said, gesturing at the ceiling-high mounds of stamps. “Our stock’s depleted at the moment!”
The sight of so much wealth reminded me of a comment by the Postmaster General on the difficulty of counterfeiting stamps.
“There has been a lot of public speculation to the effect that rotogravure, because it is a photoengraving process, could be duplicated easily by counterfeiters,” he said. “It’s true that hand engraving, which is distinctive, offers more security, but the new method definitely would not be easy to imitate.
“What’s more, postal inspectors would detect counterfeits immediately. Like Canadian Mounties, they always get their men.”
And convict them, he might have added, for inspectors successfully prosecute 97 percent of the cases they bring into court.
The inspection service is the oldest investigative agency of the Federal Government. In fact, it’s older than the Nation. Ben Franklin was the first inspector, although he called himself a “surveyor of the post.”
Today the service has more than 900 inspectors. All, including Chief Inspector David H. Stephens, rose from the Post Office ranks through special competitive examinations. The men receive training in criminology and other fields before being assigned to districts.
One branch of the organization solves administrative problems. Inspectors given this type of work might be called efficiency experts. They install, instruct, and rate postmasters, inspect offices, make management surveys, organize delivery service, and ferret out the causes of mail delay or damage.
But the service is best known for its “whodunit” sleuthing, largely the province of the investigative branch. Inspectors must cope with a wide variety of crimes: mail fraud and theft, post office burglaries, the mailing of bombs and poisons, forgery, counterfeiting, armed robbery—the list is endless.
Solicitor aids postal inspectors
The Office of the Solicitor backs up inspectors in bringing criminals to justice and in purging from the mails material that is obscene, subversive, or defamatory.
Five modern crime laboratories assist postal detectives in their work. Stocky Albert Somerford, in charge of the Washington, D. C., laboratory, has nabbed many criminals without setting foot from his office.
He showed me a few tricks of the trade as we thumbed through typical cases from his current file. For example:
A thief had smashed a small post office safe, apparently with an ax. Inspectors had taken into custody a shady character who owned a suspiciously dull ax, but they wanted proof.
Somerford handed me two magnified photographs. One showed every chip and nick on the cutting edge of the suspect’s ax. The other revealed that those chips and nicks matched impressions left on the safe.
“This proves that the suspect’s ax did the dirty work,” said the lab head. “It clinches our case.”
Next he showed me a money order.
“It’s been ‘kited’—raised in value. Numbers were erased, others substituted. Do you see the erasure?”
I didn’t—not until he gave me enlarged photos of the numerals. The erasure looked like an eroded gully in the magnified grain of the paper.
We inspected counterfeit stamps. They seemed genuine, but under a microscope the engraved lines appeared tentative, not nearly so bold as in Government-printed postage.
Somerford displayed other tools of his trade: lie detectors, an ultraviolet lamp for observing laundry marks, samples of every ink manufactured in the United States, handwriting specimens, apparatus for soil analysis—these and a host of others.
Laws protect sealed letters
Today, in postal as well as in political matters, there is a gulf as wide as the universe between Communist nations and the Free World.
In the darkened lands behind the Iron Curtain few people dare put in a letter their frank thoughts, their fears and hopes.
But in our own land your sealed letters enjoy the same legal status as the personal papers you retain in your home. Both are guaranteed against unreasonable search or seizure. They cannot be opened and examined without legal warrant.
Perhaps the democratic function of our postal service is best summed up by this inscription on the City Post Office building in the Nation’s Capital:
MESSENGER OF SYMPATHY AND LOVE
SERVANT OF PARTED FRIENDS
CONSOLER OF THE LONELY
BOND OF THE SCATTERED FAMILY
ENLARGER OF THE COMMON LIFE
CARRIER OF NEWS AND KNOWLEDGE
INSTTRUMENT OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
PROMOTER OF MUTUAL AQUAINTANCE
OF PEACE AND OF GOODWILL
AMONG MEN AND NATIONS
That, in essence, is your Post Office Department, the everyday servant to whom an old saying pays this tribute:
“As long as there are postmen, life will have zest! “