In the spirit of literacy and letter writing

May 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that a while ago I recommended several books for kids featuring letters and sending mail.  Why?  Because books in the hands of children create readers and inspire new interests.  Besides, who among us doesn’t love a good book about mail?  And these have the added bonus of great illustrations!  So, in the spirit of literacy and letter writing, today I recommend four books; three about letter carriers of different flavors, and one about the era when you could mail order a house.

Millie Waits for the Mail by Alexander Steffensmeier

You may think that dogs are the stuff of nightmares for mail carriers, but that’s only because you haven’t yet read about Millie. Oh, yes, she waits for the mail — to be more precise, she lies in wait and takes great glee in scaring the mail carrier. Oh, my.

This book has conflict and a smooshed package, but, fear not, it ends happily.

A Letter for Leo by Sergio Ruzzier

A story about Leo who delivers the mail, makes a friend when he is kind to a stranger, and–finally!–receives a letter of his own.

Mr Griggs’ Work by Cynthia Rylant

Mr. Griggs "spent millions of minutes of his long life shuffling through letters, watching the pictures on the stamps change, punching his First Class puncher, weighting fat brown boxes, and listening to long tales bout 'The Letter That Never Got There.'"

Mr. Griggs “spent millions of minutes of his long life shuffling through letters, watching the pictures on the stamps change, punching his First Class puncher, weighing fat brown boxes, and listening to long tales about ‘The Letter That Never Got There.'” 

Need I say more or is that enough to sell you on getting to know Mr. Griggs?  (I really love this one.)

And the bonus book: The House in the Mail by Rosemary and Tom Wells

This one is less about mail and more about the process of constructing a mail order house, BUT it’s a great slice of history and shows what a wonder mail order merchandise was in the 1920s–something that may not have happened without the USPS’s introduction of Rural Free Delivery in 1896.

Now, run to your library and ask for these books.  Then find a child and share.  Enjoy!


List of Letters, c. 1860

May 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

The Maryland State Archives’ newspaper digitization project aims to preserve and provide easy access to newspapers published in Maryland from the 1700s through the 1940s.  Personal experience leads me to caution you that taking a casual look at their online collection can result in a great deal of time spent reading vintage advertisements and musing that the gossipy “Personal and Social” and “Local Matters” sections are, perhaps, the analog forerunners to social media (“Dr. and Mrs. H. L. Dodd’s little daughter recently sat on a needle and was very much inconvenienced until the cause of her sickness was discovered.” Yes, this tidbit really appeared in the paper, circa 1920).

While randomly browsing the Saturday, November 24, 1860 edition of the Kent News, a “List of Letters” signed by the postmaster caught my eye.


Curious about what this meant, I did some research.  Since Rural Free Delivery did not become a universal service until 1902, in the 1860s people had to stop by the post office and inquire whether they had mail.  Because of this, there was a postal regulation requiring:
“That the postmasters shall, respectively, publish, at the expiration of every three months, or oftener, when the Postmaster General shall so direct, in one of the newspapers published at or nearest the place of his residence, for three successive weeks, a list of all the letters remaining in their respective offices”

If the addressees failed to claim their mail within three months of the list being published, the Postmaster was charged with opening unclaimed items in order to look for “any valuable papers, or matters of consequence” and then attempting to notify or return items to the sender.

Today, individual post offices hold “dead letters” for a much shorter period of time.  “Undeliverable, unendorsed standard letters or flats” land in the recycling bin on a daily basis.  Certain categories of mail and loose-in-mail items are sent to the USPS Mail Recovery Center.  If valid claims for lost mail are filed, items are returned.  If not, they may be auctioned.

Have you ever lost something in the mail?


Leech, D.D.T. (1857). List of post offices in the United States; with the names of postmasters, on the 13th of July, 1857; Also, the regulations and laws of the Post Office Department. John C. Rives (publisher). Retrieved from:

Publication 100 – The United States Postal Service – An American History 1775 – 2006 ( 2012, November). Retrieved from:

Stam, J. L. (1860, November 24) “List of Letters” The Kent News, 21(29), 2. Retrieved from:

Listening to Letters & the Penguin Post Office

January 31, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’ve recently discovered two letter-based podcasts and a PBS program featuring one of the world’s most unique post offices.  I found them all interesting and thought you might, too.

Titanic Letters – In 2012, the BBC recorded a podcast series featuring letters written by some of those involved in the Titanic disaster.  Some are written prior to the ship sinking, others in the chaotic aftermath.  Each is read by a different personality.  They’re very poignant.  [Note: You’ll probably want to start at the bottom of the list so that you’re listening chronologically.]

John Adams Letters from the Front – The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of British WWI solider John Adams are collaborating on the creation of this podcast which shares his experiences in the war as told through the letters he wrote home.  This series began in the fall of 2014 and will continue over the next few years with episodes being released 100 years to the month after the letters were written.  Part of what I love about this project is that these hundred-year-old letters that connected a solider to his family are continuing to bring his family together.

Penguin Post Office – This is a recent episode of the PBS show Nature.  Because it is a nature program, the main focus is on the colony of 3,000 gentoo penguins that take up summer residence next at Antarctica’s Port Lockroy, but the Port Lockroy post office is also featured.  If the brutality of nature makes you squeamish, you may want to skip the Nature episode (spoiler alert: not all the penguins survive) and instead watch the Port Lockroy briefing film to learn a little bit about the world’s southern-most post office, which is a major Antarctic tourist attraction.

USPS: Protecting Your Privacy for Over Two Centuries

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

You might not know this, but we’re in the middle of Choose Privacy Week, which is an initiative of the American Library Association.

Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2012) is an initiative that invites library users into a national conversation about privacy rights in a digital age.

The right to privacy is a big deal in the field of librarianship.  Working in a public library, I spend a lot of time thinking about privacy issues––protecting users’ privacy, advocating for continued strong privacy practices, providing materials that will help users make informed choices about their privacy, etc.  I also spend a lot of time considering both logical and unexpected ways in which things can be grouped together.  This goes with the territory of librarianship, but it’s also something my brain does naturally.  I thrive on finding points of connection.  Thanks to these factors, my mind managed to work its way around to pondering the intersection of privacy and letter writing.

Based on my gut instinct, I quickly came to this conclusion: when the news is full of stories about how online privacy can only ever be semi-achieved and even that requires constant individual vigilance, it seems that the tried and true pen to paper, tucked inside an envelope, sealed, stamped, and sent is a hands-down winner for sharing your thoughts discretely.

Then, lo and behold, on the first day of Choose Privacy Week, I found myself at the National Postal Museum (check that off my list of Things to Do in 2012!) studying an exhibit panel entitled Freedom of Speech in the Mail.

It turns out that privacy was one of founding principles of the U.S. Postal System.

For anyone with a smidgen of knowledge about the American Colonial times, it will come as no surprise when I say that the original 13 colonies were under British rule.  What you may not know, though, is that the colonial British Post Office was not run with an eye to the privacy of letter-writers.  In fact, it was quite common for agents of the Crown to scrutinize the mail looking for hints of treason.  The wrong words in a letter could result in a death sentence.  Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well with the feisty revolutionary minds of the day, many of whom resorted to engaging private carriers in order to ensure that their personal correspondence and the latest newspapers were received.  In 1774, William Goddard, a printer who had “formed a partnership with Benjamin Franklin to publish the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a paper sympathetic to the revolutionary cause” presented a petition to the Continental Congress (Pope, 2006). He was motivated by a local postmaster who took it upon himself to disrupt Goddard’s mail delivery and prevent him from receiving newspapers containing critical information.  Goddard’s proposal made the case for founding a postal system that would be an alternative to the colonial British Post Office and would be based on the “principles of open communication, freedom from governmental interference, and the guaranteed free exchange of ideas” (Pope, 2006).  Less than a year later, the Constitutional Post was up and running and the foundation of what would become the USPS was in place.

You may be thinking, “But that was centuries ago!”

True.  However, the USPS hasn’t backed away from making privacy central to its operations.  In the Ponemon Institute’s 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies, the USPS, for the third year in a row, ranked #1 out of 74 agencies that collect information about individuals.  83% of respondents perceived the USPS as trustworthy when it came to safeguarding citizen’s privacy and personal information.

And so, in celebration of ALA’s excellent initiative and the USPS’s longstanding record on protecting your right to communicate freely and without interference, here’s my advice to you:  Choose Privacy–Write a Letter

International Mailbox Exhibit at the National Postal Museum.
(Off-topic?  Yes!  But still very cool.)

Sources for Info about USPS & Privacy Protection

American Society for Public Administration. (2007, March). 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies announced. PA Times, 30(3).   Retrieved April 29, 2012 from MasterFile Premier.

Hentoff, Nat. (n.d.) Case in point: Freedom of speech in the mail.  National Postal Museum exhibit, Washington D.C.  Visited May 1, 2012.

Pope, Nancy. (2006). Goddard’s petition to the Continental Congress [National Postal Museum online exhibit].  Retrieved May 3, 2012 from

The Life and Times of Mr. Zip

February 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you’ve ever looked at items that were mailed a generation ago, you’ve probably noticed that something is consistently absent.  Here, take a look:

Do you see what’s missing? (hint: look at the end of the address)

The reason behind this omission is that the Zone Improvement Plan Code system hadn’t yet been invented.  First proposed in 1944 by postal inspector Robert A. Moon, it took nearly twenty years for the idea of a national coding system to be adopted. Hoping to improve the efficiency of sorting and delivering mail, Mr. Moon submitted several additional proposals over the years.  He is now recognized as the father of the first three ZIP code digits, which are used to divide the country into roughly 900 geographic areas.  The 4th and 5th digits, proposed by postal employee H. Bentley Hahn, were added to more precisely pinpoint locations, allowing a piece of mail to be placed on the most efficient route to its final destination.

Improved efficiency and faster delivery were clearly winning ideas, but the USPS still faced the challenge of convincing a whole country of people to buy in to the notion and start tacking five digits on to the end of their addresses.  And change, even positive change, can be difficult to enact.  So how did they do it?

Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum's virtual exhibit Flashing Across the Country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code Promotional Campaign

They introduced Mr. Zip!

Originally named “Mr. P.O. Zone,” he’d been rechristened (good decision!) by the time he made his first public appearance at a 1962 convention where he posed for photos with all the attendant postmasters.  In the 9 months leading up to the official implementation of ZIP Codes, Mr. Zip popped up all sorts of places–buttons, letter satchel decals, the side of mail trucks, posters, TV ads, rubber stamps–touting the benefits of using ZIP Codes.

Although ZIP Code implementation got underway in 1963, citizens were given several years to acclimate before ZIP Codes became a hard and fast requirement for sending mail.  During this time, all sorts of promotional materials were created to encourage acceptance and use.  Give a listen to the ZIP Code Ballad and see if it doesn’t endear you to those five special digits!  (More ZIP Code PSAs can be found here.)

By the 1970s, USPS mail was nearly 100% ZIP Code compliant.  Mr. Zip, having achieved his objective with great success, began making fewer appearances.  Although not often seen in official capacity these days, Mr. Zip has been spotted here and there recently.  So keep an eye out for him!  And remember:

Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum's virtual exhibit Flashing Across the Country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code Promotional Campaign

Sources* for Info about the History of ZIP Codes:

Curtin, A. (n.d.)  Flashing across the country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code promotional campaign [virtual exhibit]. Smithsonian National Postal Museum.  Retrieved from:

Martin, D. (2001, April 14). Robert Moon, an inventor of the ZIP Code, dies at 83. New York Times.  Retrieved from:

Stein, L. (2003, July 14). Post haste.  U.S. News & World Report, 135(1), p. 15. Retrieved from EBSCO MasterFile Premier.

“What does ZIP Code stand for?” (2011, September). Journal of the Retired United Pilots Association, 14(9), p. 13. Retrieved from:

If you are intrigued and want to know more, I highly recommend checking out the National Postal Museum’s virtual exhibit.  It has lots more information, as well as many examples of the promotional materials used to get the public excited about using ZIP Codes.

Sunday 7: Postcard Projects

January 22, 2012 § 5 Comments

How do you feel about postcards?  Are you in the “just for vacations” camp?  Do you use them as a postal equivalent to texting?  Or do you not give them much thought at all?

I am totally taken in by the tiny bag of Salt Lake salt that is sewed on to the edge of this postcard from Salt Lake City, UT. I bet it was a popular tourist pick and sold well in all its gimicky glory.

In the history of postal systems, postcards are a relatively new innovation.  They came into being in the 1870s and quickly became popular as a way to keep in touch, acknowledge new acquaintances, and share travel stories.  By the early 1900s, postcards had become big business in the United States; in 1905, postcards were reportedly mailed at a rate of over 2,000,000 per day!  Curt Teich became the first person to make a fortune off of the production of postcards with a company that transcended all four eras of postcards: the Golden Age, the White Border Era, the Linen Era, and the Chrome Era. (What? Were you not up on the fact that the humble postcard’s history was divided into eras?  You know, it was news to me, too!)  At the height of production the Curt Teich Company employed over 1,000 workers to run the company’s 40 postcard presses.  During WWI, patriotic-themed postcards were sent by those on the homefront to soldiers who, in return, sent home postcards depicting carefully constructed, staged, and sanitized snapshots of the war.  The same era saw the rise of the scantily clad woman as a popular postcard motif (though these cards were less likely to actually be sent through the post).  Over the 20th century, postcards continued to play a role in correspondence and the practice of deltiology, the collection and study of postcards, really took off.  In addition to appealing to collectors, historic postcards provide a fascinating glimpse into the social history, trends, changing mores, and humor of bygone eras.

Although postcards are no longer being sent at the volume they were a century ago, they shouldn’t be ignored as a way to stay in touch, reach out, and even do some good in the world.  If you want to move beyond the “Greetings from…” variety of postcards, try one of these projects!

7 Postcard Projects

  1. Orphaned Postcard Project.  PostMuse is inviting people to adopt postcards from her international collection.  She’ll send you the postcard you select, then you write her a note and post it back to her.
  2. Adopt Penguin Books Postcards.  Emilie of Winnie’s Girl was inspired by PostMuse to run her own postcard adoption program.  She is sending out postcards from a collection of 100 postcards featuring the covers of Penguin Books titles.  Perfect for those of you who are avid readers!
  3. Pet Postcard Project.  A postcard project to help feed homeless pets.  You create a postcard and send it in.  At the end of the current campaign the postcards are tallied and the sponsor donates to the chosen animal shelter.  The more postcards received, the more food and other supplies for homeless pets!
  4. Postcrossing.  Joining this community of international postcrossers is easy and once you send a postcard, you can look forward to receiving one.  To date, 9,930,321 postcards have been received thanks to this project!
  5. Postsecret. Started as a community art project, Postsecret has grown into a global phenomenon.  Share your secret anonymously via handmade postcard.
  6. dawdlr.  “Dawdlr is a global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: what are you doing, you know, more generally?”  Put your answer on a postcard and join the community.
  7. Monday Morning Postcards.  Start a personal postcard project by following in the footsteps of Tara Austen Weaver, aka Tea, and committing to write at least one postcard a week.

If you’re in the U.S. and feeling inspired to send a postcard, remember that USPS rates have just gone up.  Even with the 3¢ jump on postcard stamps, it’s still a bargain to be able to make someone’s day for 32¢ and a little bit of your time.  For more info on the updated USPS rates, check out The Missive Maven’s post.


Sources* for Info about the History of Postcards:

Kelly, Megan. (2009, Nov). Curt Teich. Antiques & Collecting Magazine, 114(9), 20-25. Retrieved from MasterFile Premier.

McCulloch, Ian. (1998, Apr/May). The postcard war. Beaver, 78(2), 4. Retrieved from EBSCO History Reference Center.

Oren, A. (1944, July 29). Postcard parade. Saturday Evening Post, 217(5); 24-37. Retrieved from MasterFile Premier.

*How can I afford to access these resources?  Like most public libraries, mine has a virtual collection that includes access to all sorts of premium resources…all available for the cost of a library card, which is FREE.  Public libraries are fantastic!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with postal history at Scribbling Glue.