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Smithsonian National Postal Museum

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Moving the Mail : Mail by Rail : Inside the Railway Mail Car

Inside the Railway Mail Car

Interior of museum's mocked-up mail car

Five mail clerks at work inside a mail car

Seven mail clerks working in crowded mail car

arrow Video: Mail by Rail
The exterior of the Railway Mail Service car on exhibit in the Museum's atrium was fabricated by exhibition designers. The interior consists of authentic furniture and pieces removed from a retired Railway Mail Service car.

Sorting mail on moving trains was one of the postal service's great innovations. After the Civil War, Post Office officials worked to decentralize operations, concentrating on the growing volume of mail carried on the nation's rail lines.

Mailbags left untouched on railcar floors were now emptied and their contents processed as the train sped toward its destination. This new method of sorting mail en route was developed just as railroads were connecting every corner of the country.

By the early 1900s, railroads were critical to postal operations. Like Union Station in Washington, D.C., located adjacent to the City Post Office Building, the Post Office Department ordered that all new main post offices in large cities be built as near as possible to the principal railroad station.

Railway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service's employees. Their jobs were exhausting and dangerous, their entrance tests demanding—a passing grade was considered 97%. They were required to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour. To ensure that the clerks' skills didn't rust, they were tested from time to time to ensure they could maintain that pace.

These clerks had remarkable camaraderie, helping each other out as needed. As one retired clerk put it, "nobody sat down until everyone was finished." The clerks adopted a fascinating shorthand language for their work, including the term "nixie" for an unsortable or misaddressed letter and "bum" for a damaged or empty mail sack. Before leaving the station, one clerk might yell "throw the bums out," meaning to toss out the empty mailbags. Another could yell, "Seventy-six in the house," noting that the mail from Trail #76 was on board. Since there was no time to read an entire mail label, clerks shortened them into nonsense phrases. Thus, the announcement of mail from the "New York and Pittsburgh Train 11, two, from Madison Square Station, New York, New York," transformed into the cry "From the Madhouse with a two!"

Woman and daughter inside museum's mail car
Visitors are invited to explore the Museum's mail car.

Interior of railway mail car
Even when empty, there was little space to move around on the mail car.

Clerks inside a post office dragging sacks of mail to be loaded onto a train bound for Wichita, Kansas

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