When rural mail was delivered by sleigh in snowy places
  • Fake pin-up girl get-well card & address book
  • A soldier’s 1944 V-Mail Easter card
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    Auction Finds

    Even a missing address couldn’t stop delivery of mail

    How on earth did these letters ever make it to through the mail, both I and another auction-goer wondered as we thumbed through a stack of old letters in cardboard boxes on a table at the auction house.

    Most had only the name, city and state of the addressee, but the letters were postmarked so they apparently arrived at their destinations. Most were from around the turn of the 20th century up to the 1940s – several were sent in 1947 by a World War II Army major presumably to his wife. Some of the others were sent to a woman in Cottondale, FL, from Culverton, GA.

    I was indeed curious about how U.S. postal employees were able to get insufficiently addressed mail to the right places. These must have been diligent workers with good eyesight and the minds of a sleuth.

    Two letters sent to a woman in Cottondale, FL, bear no street address. But she apparently got them.

    Two letters sent to a woman in Cottondale, FL, in 1906 bear no street address. But she apparently got them.

    That’s been going on for a long time, even before Wells Fargo and other express services began delivering mail from miners and products from merchants in California to the East Coast. Even today, in this country and others, illegible mail still gets delivered. I’ve received letters from family members that I wondered how the heck the mail made it to my address.

    When it was formed in 1852, Wells Fargo promised – no, guaranteed – to deliver mail and parcels on time, without problems and without a perfect address. Operating out of San Francisco, it also delivered gold, coins and other goods, and provided banking services for the thousands of people rushing to make their fortune in the gold mines. The company also guaranteed the safety of women and children riding alone in its stagecoaches.

    The West was wide open and lacked the amenities of the more-developed East Coast, where a network of railroads made travel and shipping easier. Wells Fargo filled that void for miners, who honored the company by coining the trusty phrase “By God and by Wells Fargo.” They could’ve used the US Postal Service, but the government was charging 25 cents for a letter and Wells Fargo, 6 cents. And the Post Office took longer to deliver.

    A stack of letters, along with a telegram, at auction.

    A stack of letters, along with a telegram, at auction.

    The Wells Fargo Archives contains a collection of letters from the mid-19th century addressed like those at the auction. One writer penned his frustration on the envelope of a letter he was sending to an official in the capital of California. The capital had moved three times in three years, and he wasn’t sure where it was located:

    Hon. T.S. Houston
    State Comptroller
    San Jose or Vallejo!!
    or God Knows where, Cala.

    The Post Office took over mail service in 1895, and over the years, tried often to get people to put complete addresses on their letters as well as return addresses, which didn’t seem to catch on, either. Most of the letters at auction did not have return addresses.

    Return addresses were said to have first been used during the late 19th century. By the 1950s, when a lot of mail ended up in the Dead Letter Office, the PO encouraged people to start using return addresses or their mail would not get top priority. The Dead Letter Office was opened in 1825, and within 10 years had received 900,000 letters. A century later, it was 19.6 million. The office is still around, but is called the Mail Recovery Center, located in Atlanta.

    Two letters from a major in the U.S. military presumably to his wife.

    Two letters from a major in the U.S. Army presumably to his wife, 1947. The name of her town is Eads, TN.

    Today, the Post Office has some guidelines on how to address letters to make it easier for its automated machines to process. Even back in 1922, it was issuing bulletins and press notices on how to address letters so they could be easily read and sent on their way. This was the system: Post office clerk looked at the state. Railway postal clerk looked at the city or town. Clerk/carrier in the office of delivery looked at the addressee. If anything was missing, the letter could end up like thousands of others in the Dead Letter Office.

    That inattention was on the mind of the U.S. postmaster in 1922 when he noted the “carelessness of human nature” in an article he wrote for Nation’s Business, the publication of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The costs for “illegibly and incorrectly addressed letters” ran into the millions – in expenses, labor, annoyance and delay, he said.

    All letters did not end up in the Dead Letter Office, however. In some large cities, a letter with a person’s name and city would be sent to that city’s Post Office’s directory service, where workers would try to find a street address. If the address could not be found the letter would then be sent to the Dead Letter Office. The final step was to return it to the sender who had to pay 3 cents.

    A 1914 letter with a name and a city in Georgia.

    A 1904 letter with a name and a city in Georgia.

    Businesses seemed to have always been the worst culprit, especially clerks who failed to fold letters so both addresses could be seen in window envelopes, or who wrote the addresses in shorthand, according to a 1919 story in the publication Printers’ Ink Monthly.

    Other times, letter-writers played guessing games with postal workers, according to the publication:

    “For years it was a favorite game for a certain tribe of geniuses to tax the ingenuity of the post-office force with signs, symbols and unusual arrangements of words instead of business-like addresses. … For example:


    This proved a puzzler for a time, but was finally sent to the correct address: John Underwood, Andover Mass.”

    “One morning years ago, George P. Rowell, founder of Printers’ Ink, was handed a letter by the postman with no other address than “George” written across the face with the picture of ten spruce trees underneath. Some wag had challenged the post office with a rebus, and the challenge had been accepted and correctly solved. The address of the office was at that time 10 Spruce Street.”

    A box of opened letters, along with a letter from an attorney's office.

    A box of opened letters, along with a letter from an attorney’s office.

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