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Letter Shops, Mail Service Firms, and Presort Bureaus

Woman working with small packages in a mail shop.
Salesian Missions letter shop, circa 1995

Mailing services is a business term encompassing a wide range of functions related to the production of commercial mail. Businesses in this industry segment can perform all related functions, or specialize in one or two; some may also provide printing, fulfillment, or marketing services.

Today, a mailing service company can receive rolls of paper, print the material that will be mailed, manage data and apply addresses, produce and sort the finished mailpieces, and submit them to the US Postal Service. Today’s sophisticated printer/mailer or mailing service provider is the modern example of what was once a very simple, but labor-intensive, business.

Technology Transforms the Office

The beginnings of mailing services as a separate business starts with the increased use of the typewriter in the 1870’s. Typewritten correspondence could be produced much faster than handwritten letters, but making multiple copies required the use of carbon paper, which could only create a limited number of copies, usually of poor quality. Armies of typists seated in large rooms filled with desks worked away, typing commercial letters in bulk quantities for mailing. New copying machines were welcomed replacements. In 1887, Thomas Edison patented the Mimeograph, a device that made copies of a typewritten document. The patent was licensed to the A.B. Dick Company, which improved it and sold it for years.

In 1902, Harry C. Gammeter and Henry C. Osborn opened the American Multigraph Company, producing a Multigraph press to mass produce form letters. It had a drum with parallel horizontal slots into which were inserted metal relief type that matched a typewriter’s font. As the drum turned it picked up ink from a carbon ribbon (later an ink roller), and transferred it to the paper. The form letter was then customized using a typewriter to fill in the variable information.

These machines were used by businesses that made mailings for their clients.  Originally, such companies were called letter shops because they primarily produced sales letters – reproducing the same letter over and over, inserting them into envelopes, and mailing them. Many printers continued to provide basic mailing services, but as mailings became more complex and required greater expertise in fields other than printing, letter shops and mailing services performed specialized functions. These firms were quicker to adopt new technologies in this field, and worked more closely with the Post Office.

Addressing Technology and New Postal Processes Split the Industry

The industry shifted as changes in list management practices appeared. Many firms began to regard their lists as proprietary and developed the ability to manage lists internally. Others sought specialists in address management for assistance.

Many letter shop and mail service providers continued to provide these services, but the industry began to split between the management of address information and the printing of addresses combined with other mail-related operational services.

From 1960 to 1975, First-Class letter mail volume grew from about 33 billion to 51 billion pieces. During the same period, the number of postal employees grew from 408,000 to about 559,000.1 The Postal Service’s workload was threatening to overtake its ability to develop new automated processes and install new equipment to handle ever-increasing volumes of mail.

In the 1970’s, the USPS introduced the concept of work sharing. This was a discount for mailers who could perform certain processing and transportation functions less expensively than the Postal Service. Firms began to offer presort services to mailers, often comingling mail from multiple customers to make up the volume requirements necessary for the discounts. It did not take long for businesses to introduce more sophisticated sorting machines – similar to those used by the Postal Service – and build an industry around sorting and transporting mail.

Critical Partnership between the Mailing Industry and the Postal Service

For most major mailers, mail is a business tool and the Postal Service one of many channels they use to communicate with others and to deliver their goods to customers. They expect it to work, and be cost-effective. They often rely on a letter shops, mail service firms, and presort bureaus to manage their mailing operations. The partnership can be difficult, even contentious, but all participants invest a significant amount of attention to resolving issues, developing strategies for improvement, and in ensuring that mail is relevant for businesses and their customers.

1) Postal employment would peak in 1988 at more than three quarters of a million workers.

America’s Mailing Industry