Through the Post
Have you ever been
Location: Binding the Nation, “The Post”
Would you be surprised to find out that the postal service wasn’t always known for carrying letters? Over 250 years ago, the majority of what went through the mail was newspapers, which were crucial for spreading information across communities. In fact, the position of postmaster became highly sought-after by newspaper publishers who could use it to both receive the latest news first as well as disadvantage competitors’ papers. Spreading news and information was an important function of the mail during the Revolutionary War. Today many people access most of their news digitally. How do you think the role of the U.S. postal system in spreading information has changed?
Location: Systems at Work, “The Chicken or the Egg”
Parcel Post was introduced by the Post Office Department in 1913, thus allowing bulky farm and factory products (among other things) to be shipped through the mail at an affordable price. The law stabilized rates and opened up the market to all by increasing the convenience of shipping. The service also created a new market for shipping containers that could accommodate unusual requests. Shipping containers were specially designed for eggs, butter, and odder items.
Location: Mail Call, “Mail and Morale”
This unusual audio “letter” was sent home by a soldier in training to his family during WWII. Hearing a loved one's voice would have been a big change for families used to sending written letters. Both military personnel and their family members eagerly awaited their letter carrier and depended on the mail for maintaining communication with their loved ones. Sharing news and experiences by mail helped sustain relationships in challenging times. Charity organizations and companies sponsored correspondence, and phonograph “letters” like this to keep up morale during the war.
Location: Behind the Badge, “Buyer Beware”
Not everything that goes through the mail is sent with good intentions. The Behind the Badge exhibition showcases a variety of frauds and scams that have traveled through the mail over the years, like the ones shown here. Even as scams continue to evolve in the digital age, the vast network of the postal system is seen as a lucrative opportunity for finding victims. Scams that operate via the postal system are investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Although the items in the exhibit might look ridiculous, mail scams often prey on vulnerable populations that are unable to determine their legitimacy.
Location: Mail Marks History, “Survivors”
What is invisible but can still be delivered through the mail? In the 1800s, health officials thought it was yellow fever. Postal workers used perforation paddles like this to puncture the mail and subject the contents to sulfur fumigation in the hope of stopping outbreaks of the deadly disease. These measures failed because they were based on false assumptions about how yellow fever spread. However, there are some deadly substances that can travel through the mail. Today’s decontamination practices are targeted, effective, and not nearly as invasive as the paddle but can sometimes damage the contents of the mail.
DID YOU KNOW?
Yellow fever is actually a virus spread by mosquitos (NOT by the mail). Check out the link to learn more about yellow fever and the mail: How Yellow Fever Once Affected the Mail »
Location: Mail Marks History, “In Times of Adversity – Pullout Frame 12”
Not every item made it through the post. Unclaimed items and mail with illegible addresses or insufficient postage went to the Dead Letter Office for resolution. Many strange unclaimed items from Dead Letter Offices made their way into the collection of the National Postal Museum, including taxidermized animals and brass knuckles. Employees worked with the information available to them, including opening the envelope to read the letter, to decipher the mail’s correct address and owner—a process that could depend entirely on the worker’s own knowledge. Today, this task is carried out by the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The next time something you send goes missing, maybe it’s sitting in the “lost and found” awaiting the observant eyes of the next detective.
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