Where U.S. Mail Went to Die

By Ashley Bowen-Murphy – October 28, 2015
The “dead” mail arrived constantly, black bags filled with almost 30,000 letters and parcels each day. These high casualties caused only a general sense of alarm among late 19th and early 20th century Americans. Postal clerks in Washington, D.C. sorted through all letters pronounced dead, separating the truly lifeless from the merely ill. Clerks worked to decipher illegible addresses, complete vague or partial addresses, and identify the sender of a letter with insufficient postage so that the item could be returned and posted properly.

When a letter or parcel really and truly died, clerks recycled the paper, sorted the packages’ contents, and displayed some of the strangest and most notorious items in a small museum. As early as the 1850s, visiting the Dead Letter Office and its makeshift museum was a wildly popular activity for tourists to Washington, D.C. Travel guides and popular writers encouraged visitors to witness the scale of the United States government by visiting the Pension Office, Patent Office, and Post Office Department.

In contrast to the fictional Dead Letter Office clerk made famous in Herman Melville’s story Bartleby the Scrivener, descriptions of the DLO noted that the post office staff was much friendlier and more welcoming than their counterparts in the Pension Office. In part, this feeling may be the result of the Dead Letter Office depending almost entirely on “feminine faculty” to decipher the illegible, incomplete, or foreign addresses on mail. In the 1890s, Mrs. Patti Collins achieved much renown through her skill at “blind reading”–making sense of the garbled addresses. The Post Office Department assumed that women, and a few clergymen employed in the task, would be more honest and discreet when opening a stranger’s mail.

Letters died in myriad ways. Sometimes, an address was so incomplete or illegible that postal clerks, and even the amazing Mrs. Collins, could not identify its destination. Sometimes the sender attached insufficient postage. Records do not indicate why a one-pound, egg-shaped package of snuff could not be delivered. Although the sender covered it with revenue stamps, to indicate that he or she paid the appropriate taxes, perhaps an address, postage stamps, or any other indication of its final destination was neglected.

At other times, items like pipe bombs and loaded revolvers arrived from “reckless and thoughtless persons” who showed an “utter disregard of the postal laws!” In 1903, the Dead Letter office received “a perforated tin can containing three rattlesnakes, very much alive and in fighting trim.” The staff of the DLO sent for someone “accustomed to handling such reptiles” who might chloroform them. Thinking the snakes were dead, the clerks left the snake under their supervisor’s desk. A few days later, a female visitor to the DLO looked down and “saw a rattlesnake coiled ready to spring.” Fortunately, a letter carrier entered the room at exactly that moment and threw his full mailbag onto the snake. Shortly thereafter, the clerks decided to place the snakes into alcohol and display on the museum’s shelves.

An astounding number of letters and packages died before reaching their destination. By 1882, the Dead Letter Office dealt with 13,600 pieces of mail each day. That number only grew and by the early 20th century, Dead Letter clerks handled well over 30,000 pieces of mail daily (about 11 million items each year). Clerks did everything they could to identify the recipient or, if that was impossible, to return the item to its sender. Only after exhausting all possible attempts to identify the recipient or sender would the Dead Letter Office clerks open a letter or parcel. If clerks found any money, they made a careful note and turned the currency over to the United States Treasury. Undeliverable periodicals and reading materials were donated to Washington, D.C.-area charities. Items in parcels were sorted, catalogued, and held for a period of time. If nobody claimed them, the items were auctioned off.

The DLO became such a popular tourist destination, its shelves lined with so many interesting and unusual items, that the department established a proper museum to keep tourists from pestering the busy Dead Letter Office clerks. An exact date for the founding of the museum is difficult to pin down, but there was certainly a room dedicated to public display by the 1870s. Never a formal, curated collection, the museum represented a labor of love taken on by various anonymous members of the Post Office Department’s Dead Letter Office. The museum housed a motley combination of items that represented both the Post Office Department’s history and the innumerable strange objects that passed through the Dead Letter Office each year.

The old Post Office Pavilion, c. 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The old Post Office Pavilion, c. 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In 1899, the Post Office Department moved all its operations into the old Post Office Pavilion (the building is still standing and will soon become a Trump Hotel) at 11th St and Pennsylvania Ave. Here, visitors could see their government at work, wonder at the skill of so-called “blind readers,” and marvel at the odd items sent through the mail.

More/Source: Where U.S. Mail Went to Die | Atlas Obscura

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