RPO Lingo

Refer to caption
RPO clerks break for a photograph.

Railway Post Office Clerks spent so much time on the trains that in some ways they developed their own special language. Some terms were universal to the Postal Service and some were specific to the trains. While some of the language is easy to pick up on, some of the other lingo wasn’t so self explanatory. Can you guess what a “nixie” was? Read on to find out.

48 Minute Hour   RPO clerks got one hour’s worth of pay every 48 minutes they worked, which accounted for the extra work they had to do off the clock, such as studying and preparing for a trip.
Six & Eight   A typical schedule for an RPO clerk would be to work six consecutive days, and then have eight days off, known as a six and eight.
Bid   Clerks often had preferences as to which line they ran on, based on the destinations and the schedule, so they could bid on certain runs, and they would get reassigned based on their bid and their seniority. Oftentimes it would be years before a clerk would get to be a regular on his desired line.
Bums   Empty mailbags
“Carry the mail by”    This is a phrase used for the times when the mail is not sorted in time to be delivered at the proper station.  It was considered a disgrace and clerks took great pride in the fact that this rarely happened.
Catch and Throw   This is the term used for mail that is dispatched and picked up without the train ever stopping; the clerk would throw off a bag of mail to a man who was waiting to bring it to the Post Office, and the clerk would then extend the catcher arm and catch the bag of mail that came from that town. The mail was then sorted and delivered in the mail car as necessary. The catch and throw was also known as mail “on-the-fly.”
Catcher Arm   The device used to catch mail bags in the nonstop exchange, it was essentially a metal bar attached to the side of the train that would hook onto the bag so it could be maneuvered into the mail car.
Catcher Pouches   For the nonstop exchange, the mail getting thrown off would be put into a special sack known as a catcher pouch.
Deadhead   Clerks who did not live at either end of the line would often have to ride from their hometown to the station where they worked. They had passes so they could make these trips for free.
En Route Distribution   This is a blanket term for the work done in the RPO, referring to the sorting and delivering of the mail as the train made its way from one end of the line to the other.
Excessed/Surplused   When clerks were removed from a certain line because either they were no longer needed or the run was being discontinued, they called it being excessed or surplused; they would then be reassigned to another RPO or to a stationary unit.
“Get caught up”   For RPO clerks, getting caught up meant completing the mail sorting process before they reached the next station so mail could be delivered flawlessly. Clerks would help each other after finishing assignments to be sure that this happened.
Go stuck   Leave the mails incompletely sorted
Head Out   This is the name given to the beginning of the line, where the route started. For instance, Chicago might be the head out for a Chicago and Omaha run.
Hot Runs   Mail exchanges that are less than a minute between stations
K-racks   A name for mail that comes from the Federal Reserve, typically bills being distributed to banks.
Key Man or Dumper   Clerk who lifts, unlocks and empties mail onto a sorting table
Letter Case   In the mail car, letters were sorted into a letter case, which was essentially a set of pigeon holes, each with a label denoting what town or city that letter was destined for.
Line   Clerks were assigned to certain lines that were determined by the cities that the train went between, for instance the Chattanooga and Atlanta line. Also used was the term “the end of the line,” meaning reaching the final destination, in the above case, Atlanta.
Mail Crane   The mail crane was a F-shaped stanchion placed on the side of the tracks that held mail bags so that clerks could nab them with the “catcher arm” during the “catch and throw” or “on-the-fly” nonstop mail exchange.
Monkey Bars   These were bars running across the mail car, so that if there was a wreck or the brakes went on, the clerks could jump and grab the bars, avoiding getting thrown around or hurt in such a situation.
Nixies   A nixie is an undeliverable piece of mail. It may be misaddressed or illegibly addressed.
Nonstop Exchange   Another name for the catch and throw.
Number 1 mail   Anything that is to be delivered to the first section of the line (stops and on-the-fly mail)
On-the-Fly   Another name for the catch and throw.
Paper Clerk   In the mail car, the paper clerk was in charge of sorting and delivering newspapers.
Parachute   Jump from the train before end terminal (usually done once work is finished and if the train is passing near a clerk’s residence)
Pigeon Holes   These are the cubbies that letters had to be thrown into during en route distribution. It is a term used widely throughout the postal system.
Pouch Rack   In the mail car, there are several pouches suspended from a metal frame, known as the pouch rack; clerks open pouches of first class mail and throw them into the appropriate pouch or the letter case for further distribution.
Practice Case   When studying for examinations, clerks used practice cases, which were essentially portable letter cases that could help them prepare for exams and improve their mail sorting skills. Clerks purchased specially designed sorting cards to use with the cases.
“Pulling out directs”   This phrase is used to describe when clerks would prepare for upcoming cities by collecting all the mail that was going to that city ahead of time.
Register Clerk   In the mail car, the register clerk is in charge of all registered mail on the train. This was one of the more dangerous positions because the registered mail was often the target of train robberies.
Register Lock   To protect the registered mail, the pouches carrying this type of mail had a special lock on them to prevent robberies.
Regular   Though many clerks started out as substitutes, a lot eventually became regulars, meaning they had an assignment on a certain run and they maintained that run and had a standard work schedule.
Road Grip   A sort of suitcase that clerks brought with them, often holding a change of clothes, food, anything the clerk needed with him on the run.
Run   As a noun, run describes the trip between two cities, much like the word “line;” for instance, the Baltimore and Washington run. It was also used as a verb, as in “I ran between Baltimore and Washington.”
Schedules   To dispatch the mail correctly, clerks had to memorize train schedules so they knew when and where to put the mail off if it had to make a connection on a different train.
Schemes   For both exams and everyday work, clerks had to memorize schemes, the cities and towns of a certain state or even the streets of a city so they could accurately sort the mail.
Shin-peeler   A big sack of mail that is dragged through the crowded train, “peeling shins” of workers as it goes by
Slides   The buff cardboard labels used on pigeon holes
Slugs   Letter mail
Snowstorm   Occasionally a clerk would miss an “on-the-fly” mail exchange. If the mailbag fell under the moving train, the wheels would slice it open and pieces of mail would go flying everywhere, resulting in what the clerks termed a “snowstorm.”
Stationary Unit   A term for the regular post office; many clerks had to transfer to a stationary unit when the lines were taken off. Many of the clerks preferred the road to the post office.
Terminal Post Office   Separate and secured area in railway station where Post Office Department employees worked the mail.
The alley   The walking space through the center of the train between the racks
Throwing the Bums Out   Tossing out the empty mailbags before leaving on trip
Wart   An extra trip
Line Abbreviations
Oftentimes, clerks would shorten the name of their lines by abbreviating city names. Here is a sample of some of the names they used. Clerks used the shortened terms in an almost sing-song language describing their various runs and schedules.
ATL   Atlanta, GA
Balt   Baltimore, MD
Bos   Boston, MA
Buff   Buffalo, NY
Blue   Bluefield, WV
Bris   Bristol, TN
Char   Charlotte, NC
Chatt   Chattanooga, TN
Chi   Chicago, IL
Cin   Cincinnati, OH
Cleve   Cleveland, OH
Co Bluffs   Council Bluffs, IA
Det   Detroit, MI
Flo   Florence, SC
Ft Mad   Fort Madison, IA
Jack   Jacksonville, FL
KC   Kansas City, MO
Knox   Knoxville, TN
MPLS   Minneapolis, MN
Nash   Nashville, TN
Norf   Norfolk, VA
Om   Omaha, NE
Pitts   Pittsburgh, PA
Rich   Richmond, VA
Sav   Savannah, GA
Scrant   Scranton, PA
Wash   Washington, DC