What Happens When You Mail a Letter (Dec, 1951)

Very cool. This article was written back when they still had a big network of pneumatic tubes connecting all of the post offices in Manhattan.

<< Previous
1 of 6
<< Previous
1 of 6

What Happens When You Mail a Letter

By Herbert O. Johansen

With the Christmas rush on, the complex network of men and machines that speeds the mails is working in high gear.

WHEN you drop a letter in a mailbox and hear the slot lid click, you probably give the lid a couple of extra flips for good measure. In return for that effort, plus licking the stamp, you take it for granted that your message of love, business, sorrow, cheer or complaint will be delivered to the right person at the right place in the shortest possible time.

And it almost certainly will be—along with the other 127,677,738 letters that are mailed in the United States on an average day—enough letters, if their envelopes were laid end-to-end, to reach from New York to Shanghai.

For the inside story of the intricate machinery that makes this possible—to be told by following one letter through its adventures in the U. S. mails—a PS reporter and photographer called first on New York City Postmaster Albert Goldman in the imposing building that has become famous for the quotation across its facade:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Mr. Goldman explained that this quotation from Herodotus was a tribute to mounted postal couriers used by the Persians dur-ing a war with the Greeks in 500 B.C.

Post Office Big Business Now

With that historical note taken care of, we learned a few facts about the modern postal system here:

• It sells about 22 billion stamps a year for more than $900,000,000.

• It employs 500,000 men and women, including 85,188 regular carriers and 32,433 RFD route men. (On an average, a carrier walks from nine to 20 miles a day, wears out a pair of shoes every three months.)

• It has 41,193 post offices of all types throughout the country.

Now, with the blessings of the Post Office Department, we were ready to mail our guinea-pig letter.

We labeled it air mail to mark the 40th anniversary of the country’s first air-mail flight—a five-mile hop between Garden City and Mineola, N.Y., on Sept. 23, 1911.

Letter Rides Pneumatic Tube First

We dropped it in a box near Manhattan’s Triborough station to give it a good send-off. It could start through the only intra-city pneumatic-tube dispatch system used by the post office.

In operation since 1897, the tube system is 27 miles long, forming a loop that connects 21 stations. Into it go about 95,000 projectile-like carrier cylinders a day, speeding some 5,000,000 pieces of mail to their destinations at 30 miles an hour.

We addressed our letter to Tom Carrell, an automobile dealer in San Fernando, Calif., so we could show you the helicopter-delivery system operating from Los Angeles. Chicago is now the only other city having ‘copter mail service, but it undoubtedly will be extended elsewhere when more experience has been gained and helicopters can be released from war service. Their use often saves a full day in the delivery of a letter— two days in case of a holiday or over week ends.

We could, of course, have addressed our letter so that it would have gone by other means of transportation used by the post office: train, boat, motor launch, bus, horseback, and even ski or dog sled.

But whatever the means of transportation,, the post office asks only that a letter be addressed so that it can be delivered. Although this is sometimes a challenge, there are surprisingly few “nixies”—letters so illegible or indefinite in address that they end up in the dead-letter office.

Clerks Must Be Detectives

At times it requires detective work to get a letter through. One clerk, for instance, tabulated 197. spellings for Chicago, including Zizabo, Jagjago, Jaiijo, Hipaho, Hizago, Shehego, Chaque-chico.

Then there are the wags who like to match wits with the post office. Some address letters in Morse code, in musical notes or by telephone numbers (the latter are ignored). The chemically minded use such tricks as H20 Town for Watertown.

You can mail almost anything. Some articles are barred, however, such as poisons, explosives and live animals, except honeybees, day-old chicks, alligators under 20 inches and “other harmless creatures expected to reach their destination in good condition.”

And if you want your mail to arrive in good condition on time during the Christmas rush (which is expected to add almost two billion pieces of mail), mail early, address painly, wrap securely.

  1. JeffK says: January 28, 200712:38 pm

    That is cool!

    I’d love to see how it happens now.

    The US Postal Service amazes me. 39 cents and my letters from Michigan to Los Angeles usually take two, sometimes three days. Often overnight to Chicago.

  2. […] Check out What Happens When You Mail A Letter […]

  3. manu says: February 1, 20074:56 am

    “I’d love to see how it happens now.”
    You could do something similar to the ‘CameraMail’ project : http://verba.chromogeni…

  4. manu says: February 1, 20074:58 am

    “I’d love to see how it happens now.”
    You could do something similar to the ‘CameraMail’ art project, see http://verba.chromogeni…

  5. izzyd3434 says: February 1, 200712:11 pm

    I knew it….senator whats-his-name Stevens? was right about the internet being tubes. They’ve just upgraded the old mail system. Now we all feel like idiots and I’m for one glad that he will be helping to make policy.
    Anyway, nice find with this.


  6. gene_wood says: February 1, 20071:22 pm

    I like the photo on the last page where the carrier is handing the letter to the farmer in front of his orange groves. Here’s 15541 Rinaldi St. today :


    I imagine in 1951 the noise from the orange groves wasn’t as loud as that 6 lane highway about 30 yards away.

  7. [jamiesinclair.com] / The Mail System says: February 3, 20074:48 pm

    […] This is a totally awesome article about the US Postal Service in 1951. […]

  8. meneame.net says: February 10, 20076:06 pm

    ¿Qué pasa cuando envías una carta por el correo? (Documento de 1951)…

    Uno de esos artículos extraídos de una revista de 1951 con el cual podemos hacer un paralelo con la actualidad del "correo"…

  9. the new shelton wet/dry says: December 10, 20071:54 am

    […] { What Happens When You Mail a Letter, 1951 […]

  10. what happens when i mail a letter says: June 2, 20087:14 am

    […] Happens When You Mail a Letter&8230 Check out what happens when You mail A letter & to destroy your business in five easy steps – Startups.co.ukNow ask yourself this question: when […]

  11. […] This one is a story from 1951 when they had pneumatic tubes connecting post offices in Manhattan (see photo below). I find it amazing how frequently the past is more futuristic than the present. […]

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.