One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a curator is about care packages, namely, what did family and friends send to each other during one time period or another? The curiosity is understandable—who among us doesn’t want to peek inside the mail? It’s rather easy to take a look at historic letters and know what people were writing about, but packages by their nature are more ephemeral; the packaging was typically discarded and contents put to some use. Letters are one source that provide hints about what people mailed in packages. Thank you notes commonly refer to contents and sometimes correspondents wrote to request specific items. For instance, US Army pharmacist David Friedman1 wrote from France on November 2, 1917 to tell his family at home that,
Christmas will be almost here by the time you receive this letter so I will tell you all what I want. If it is possible I should very much like a box of good things to eat. Let Molly bake a few of her good cookies with nuts in them and have mother send a bottle of pickles or preserves. . . .Then a little candy and a couple more tubes of . . . Tooth Paste. Three or four pairs of sox, heavy woolen ones and a few handkerchiefs. That's all. It may sound like a great deal but really it doesn't amount to much. And it sure will help to cheer me up. . . . Love to everyone. Dave (David Friedman Collection, Center for American War Letters Archives, Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University, CA).
I came across several such references while researching the mail for our centennial exhibition, “My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I.” The Post Office discouraged fragile items from being sent to military personnel at camps and on the front line. Customers were especially warned not to send perishable items that couldn’t withstand the overseas transit time that could take two to six weeks. Newspapers published lists of items to avoid and recommendations for care packages for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Many of the articles read like Friedman’s list; “Gifts Suitable for American Soldiers on Duty” in the August 26, 1917 New York Times gave many suggestions for satisfying a sweet tooth.
Enterprising confectioners have prepared boxes of candy especially to be mailed abroad, containing such candies as are not too soft and perishable... Chocolate, which is very nourishing and palatable, and cakes in many sizes may be had at the confectionery and grocery shops (New York Times<).
Parcel Post Service, introduced in 1913, made mailing packages easier and more affordable, which increased expectations and demands, particularly at Christmastime. The Post Office and customers alike were learning much about packaging mail during the war. As a result, the Post Office and military handled the Christmas mail of 1917 and 1918 very differently. In an effort to control the mail volume and work within the limitations of the trains and ships, officials changed parcel construction, weight limits, and, in 1918, began to require military personnel to submit requests for packages.
In October 1917, the Post Office Department started to call for early mailing to military personnel and for parcels to be marked “Christmas Mail.” The campaign to mail early was deemed essential to handle the “unprecedented” amount of mail expected due to, according to Postal Bulletin, No. 11477, “the present prosperity prevailing throughout the country and congestion of other means of transportation. The high wages and abnormal earning of many persons of moderate circumstances will no doubt cause them to give more generously this Christmas.” The season was so busy and receiving gifts so important for morale that the War Department allowed postal employees to defer induction into the military if they had been selected for service between December 11, 1917 and January 1, 1918 (Postal Bulletin, No. 11528).
To reach the AEF in France in time for the special day, the mail had to be posted in the US by November 15, 1917 (Postal Bulletin, No. 11466, October 4, 1917). Postage cost 12-cents per pound to mail to the port of embarkation in New York and the rest of the journey was free (Postal Bulletin, No. 11486), but parcel post was limited to 7 pounds due to restrictions on French railway (Postal Bulletin, No. 11482).
The 1918 promotions for Christmas mail began in the early autumn. On September 28, 1918, Sgt. Clyde Eoff wrote to his sister in Omaha, NE: “I am informed that there is to be a certain type of Christmas box to be sent to us this year. You don’t need to bother about sending anything as we have all we need at present” (Clyde D. Eoff Collection, Center for American War Letters Archives, Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University, CA). Two new factors affected the season of giving between 1917 and 1918. Starting on April 1, 1918, the Post Office and military required that AEF members submit written requests for parcels and the list of items had to be approved by commanding officers. The second major change came from the assistance of the American Red Cross.
The Red Cross created vouchers, which they referred to as “Christmas coupons,” for the AEF to send home to ask for a three-pound parcel of gifts. The organization also took on some of the responsibilities of working directly with postal customers. Red Cross volunteers passed out the standardized packaging and they performed inspections to check for prohibited goods. Thus, the organization alleviated many of the tasks the Post Office and military had performed.
On Christmas Eve 1918, Sgt. Clyde Eoff was in Bitburg, Germany, as part of the army of occupation and passed the time by writing home. After concluding a letter to his sister, he made a last minute enclosure—the Christmas parcel had arrived and Eoff noted on the back of the accompanying Red Cross coupon: “After writing this letter I received the Christmas Pkg, on Christmas eve. It just reached here at the right time. I guess there will be no use hanging up our stockings tonight! Well I thank you all for the package, and it helps make a Merry Christmas for me. This coupon has crossed the ocean 3 times and covered over 15,000 miles. Keep it! Love to all. Clyde” (Clyde D. Eoff Collection, Center for American War Letters Archives, Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University, CA).
Americans were still serving abroad during the Christmas season of 1919, and while the numbers were down, they were stationed in more places around the globe than ever. For military personnel in England, France, and Germany, the less-than-seven-pound parcels had to be posted to the port of embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey by December 8; and, the parcels up to twenty pounds could be sent through the port of embarkation at San Francisco for Americans serving in Siberia, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands (Postal Bulletin, No. 12111).
Mailing early is still essential to ensure holiday care packages get timely delivery to deployed service members around the world. The contents are personalized, and like the parcels of World War I, they share the same intention to bring comforts of home to those in places of danger and hardship.
Friedman was of Jewish faith, but refers to the holiday season in general as "Christmas" as was customary at the time.
About the Author
Lynn Heidelbaugh is a curator specializing in the history of the U.S. Postal Service, military mail, and the material culture of letter writing. Ms. Heidelbaugh has served as lead curator for several National Postal Museum exhibitions including, Mail Call (2011), Behind the Badge: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (2014) and My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I (2017), for which she received a Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Award.