Some Notes on the u.s. Mails

Casey Jones set out on his last ride with some sense of haste, as I recall it, because he was “six hours late with the Western mail.” Nowadays this would trouble him scarcely at all — a mere scratch, strictly a “What of it?” state of affairs amid the varied and unpredictable eccentricities of the Post Office Department.

Consider, for instance, the special delivery letter — which, incidentally, costs almost as much today as a telegram used to. If no one is at hand to receive it, the letter goes back to the postal station, and a notice is left for the addressee, generously informing him that all he has to do is to go down and claim the letter (and present the notice), etc., etc. On many occasions special delivery letters are not even as rapid — forgive me the word — as ordinary mail, since they must await the availability of the special deliverer, and they won’t move at all while he is out on another trip, or perhaps at home with a cold.

Not least, it would be interesting to hear from J. Edward Day, our Postmaster General, why the special delivery letter must be delivered by a man driving an enormous new station wagon; not even a compact will do for these specialists, and one can fairly hear the gasoline rippling into the intake while the vast vehicle pants at the curb. There can’t be much of the thirty cents left after the letter has been riding around in such transport. One supposes the answer is to boost the thirty-cent stamp to a half dollar, but some of us would be just as willing to settle for a boy on a bicycle. What the Post Office saves on gasoline could go eventually toward helping the boy through college.

I shall not mention the matter— as Cicero used to say just before going into a long and explicit account of the matter — of the letter from the Atlantic office to a contributor in Cambridge, less than one mile distant, which was fifteen days in transit. Nor should I speak of the large check which I urgently needed and which lingered in the intra-Cambridge mails for six days between Harvard Square and my house, a distance to be measured in yards.

A few words are owing to the mail truck driver who parks his vehicle across the Atlantic’s driveway of a morning, just at the time when some of the Atlantic’s people are seeking to enter it and leave their cars in our small parking lot. The lot holds four or five cars and affords just that much more room to the curbside parkers along the street.

The driver of the mail truck does not take his vehicle into the driveway, nor even in toward the curb; he simply stops so as to block one traffic lane in the street and the driveway as well. If he were to move forward or back by a car length, the driveway would be unobstructed, and it is fair to say that he gains no advantage or convenience whatever in making his rounds by obstructing the driveway. Yet a suggestion that he move in order to let a car into the Atlantic’s parking lot brings only a surly response and no move, while he sets about delivering mail in the vicinity and across the street. The prospect is that this civil servant will be rewarded by the large, noninflationary increase in pay which the department is planning for him, and we trust this will restore him to a more amiable relationship with the public that he now serves so sorrowfully.

Outside the Atlantic’s front door is a large mailbox. It has been there for many decades, and one might conjecture its design to be fifty or sixty years old. I watched, recently, a postal employee, making his midafternoon rounds with a pickup truck, as he tried to collect the mail from this box. It was raining.

The opening of the box, for the collector, is near the bottom. He was squatting, and finally down on one knee on the wet sidewalk, pulling out a fistful of mail with his left hand and trying to hold open a canvas mailbag with his right, to receive it. The box was so full that it was hard for him to rip out the bottom layers. The bag kept collapsing. The mail was bound to get wet, and some of it inevitably fell to the sidewalk. Other pieces could easily have been damaged as they were wrenched from the bottom of the pile that pressed down on them.

Any engineer could design a box of the same capacity with a removable container inside, to be lifted out and replaced with an empty one. But the Post Office Department is still using the same boxes — and methods of collection — that it used in the nineteenth century. True, the newfangled automobile was eventually accepted for its transport, but it took many years for the department to develop a truck body at all suited to the needs of the work. Long after the dairies and bakeries and other businesses with many stops and starts on their vehicles’ routes had devised proper trucks for their purpose, the Post Office clung to old-style wagon-bed designs. (If Mr. Day will let us know the date when the last horse-drawn mail wagon, a one-horse rig, was withdrawn from service in Philadelphia, if it ever was, we shall be glad to publish the information, but I can assure him that it was long after the end of World War II.) The trouble, of course, is that the country has grown, and the volume of the mails has grown along with it, and that the Post Office Department has yet to accommodate itself to the twentieth century.