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100-Year-Old Photos of People Delivering Mail

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While the job of a mail carrier might be largely the same as it was 100 years ago, the postal system itself has drastically changed over the past century. Here are some vintage photos, courtesy of The Library of Congress, that show how your mail used to travel in the early 1900s.

Inside the Post Office

Just like today (unless you use online postage or the Automated Postal Center), a package’s journey started at the post office window. While the technology used by the cashier has changed since 1925, it still involves scales, stamps and money.

Once packages and letters were paid for, they were pushed to the back of the post office, where they would be sorted and sent off according to their destinations. Similarly, incoming mail would be sorted for the local carriers to take along their routes. This particular image from 1914 shows the behind-the-scenes action at the Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office in New York.

Just as today, when mailing addresses were found to be illegible, the packages and letters were sent to the dead letter department. While more machines are involved nowadays, back in 1917, the department had to rely on the ability of employees to decipher the addresses.

Mail Trains

Mail wasn’t delivered across the country via small cars or on the backs of horses. At least, not after the railroad connected the coasts to one another. The mail trains were a critical part of the postal system in the early 1900s, although railroads are almost never used in our modern mail system.

In many ways, the inside of a mail train operated much like the back-end of a post office. Sacks of mail would be loaded onto the train and then dumped out for sorting, as seen in this 1938 photograph by Arthur Rothstein.

The mail would be sorted based on destination, then re-bagged and unloaded at its appropriate destination. Here’s a group of gentlemen sorting out the mail in a rail car sometime around 1910.

Modes of Transportation

These days, most mail vehicles are either large trucks carrying loads between post offices or the little trucks used by mail carriers, but in the first half of the last century, there was a lot more variety in the methods of transportation used to ship mail. Automobiles started being used to deliver mail in the early 1900s, but the type of vehicles used varied from location to location. Here’s a line of early U.S. mail trucks taken in an unknown city at an unspecified date.

Some places didn’t switch to using mail vehicles until much later. In fact, it was still common for mail carriers to use horses all the way through the forties — especially in poorer and more rural areas. Here’s a mailman all saddled up for delivery in Puerto Rico taken some time before 1930.

Of course, in snowy areas, other modes of transportation were common. For example, here is a picture of a British Columbia mail team taken some time before 1930.

Once mail trucks started to become more common, though, certain modifications had to be made to accommodate vehicles for delivery in snowy weather. Here is a mail truck adapted to use extra wheels and special treads that was used in snowy Nevada County, California, in 1940, as photographed by Russell Lee.

Air Mail

Air delivery eventually rendered railroad services unnecessary. The Post Office jumped on the airplane bandwagon early, offering air mail service as early as 1918. In fact, here are a bunch of the officials, big wigs and a handful of the pilots that showed up at the first official flight of the air mail service.

And here are some of the first pilots to fly routes on the air mail service back in 1918.

Mail Carriers

Just as today, the most public face of the USPS has always been the mail carriers who visit our homes nearly every day. Before mailboxes were mandatory, they were required to stop at every home and knock on the door, developing close ties with those living on their routes. Here’s one mailman greeting one of his customers in Nebraska, 1938.

As you may have guessed, most mail carriers of the past were men, but during the two World Wars, women filled in at the Post Office just as they did in other businesses. Here is Parmlee Campbell delivering mail to some appreciative customers back in 1917.

Thought the Christmas mail rush was a new phenomenon? Think again. Here are three postal workers strapped with Christmas packages, photographed sometime between 1910 and 1915.

If you like these pictures, head over to The Library of Congress and do a search for “mail.” There are hundreds of pictures featuring mailmen, mail trains and more.

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14 Secrets of U.S. Postal Carriers
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Yes, the post office lines can be long. Yes, your mail can occasionally arrive wet. But when you think about the fact that the United States Postal Service (USPS) processes well in excess of 154 billion pieces of mail annually, you might be impressed at just how much they get right.

At the core of the USPS are its postal carriers, the men and women who run up and down porch steps, dodge unfriendly animals, and brave inclement weather to make sure your personal correspondence arrives on time. We spoke to several to learn more about the job, from their biggest fears (aside from mean dogs) to hidden surprises in mail receptacles. Here’s what we found out.

1. YOUR MAILBOX IS HOME TO HIDDEN DANGER.

Cliches are clichés for a reason, and most postal workers will admit to having some concern over unfriendly dogs on their route. But a smaller, equally painful danger remains under-publicized. According to Kenny, a carrier in the Midwest, reaching into a mailbox to deposit your letters can sometimes be hazardous to his health. “Wasps like to get into mailboxes,” he says. “Especially if they have an outgoing mail slot. They build a nest in there. I’ve been stung quite a few times.”

2. THEIR SATCHEL HAS A HIDDEN PURPOSE.

postal worker places letters in a mailbox
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The shoulder-slung sack of mail on a carrier’s shoulder isn’t just to tote credit card offers. During carrier orientation, workers are taught that the satchel is their first line of defense against aggressive dogs. (They can also use parcels to parry attacks.) “There’s a whole training program on it,” Kenny says. “You try to keep it between you and the dog.” Carriers are also issued pepper spray. “I hate to use it, but sometimes you have to,” Kenny admits. He estimates he’s been bit nine or 10 times. “I’ve never needed stitches, but I’ve known carriers who have.”

3. THE JOB WILL GIVE YOU LEGS OF STEEL.

Those shorts don't just keep carriers cool: They allow room for the inevitable, Hulk-like lower-body growth that happens to new hires. When Adin, a carrier in the Northeast, started working his route over two years ago, the long-duration cardio had a highly beneficial effect on his frame. “I lost 15 to 20 pounds initially,” he says, “but gained it back in leg muscle. I can no longer fit into skinny jeans.” (Many carriers can walk in excess of 12 miles a day.)

4. THEY CAN MAKE SOME SERIOUS CASH WITH HOLIDAY TIPS.

The gift-giving season means a marked increase in the number of parcels delivered, and many postal customers acknowledge their carrier’s efforts by leaving money with the outgoing mail. Dan, a carrier in the Northeast, doesn’t work a regular holiday route, but says carriers who do can cash in. “Some carriers claim it comes to $1000 or $2000 in cash or gift cards,” he says.

Kenny estimates 5 to 10 percent of his 500 customers leave a tip or gift. “I’ve gotten hand warmers, cocoa, and popcorn,” he says. 

5. SUMMER CAN TURN THEIR ROUTE INTO AN OBSTACLE COURSE.

Postal carriers say they tend to get so used to “mapping” their route in their brain that they can navigate it while still looking down at the mail. But come summer, customers add decorations—like hanging plants on porches—that can result in collisions. “Hanging plants, wind chimes, new trees, and gardens are all new obstacles to get used to,” Adin says. “There's a house on my route which put a watering can on the last step before I go to the next house, I tripped over it at least three times before I ‘learned’ that house again.”

6. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE.

It doesn’t take long for carriers to get a sense of customers on their route: who works from home, who’s out of town a lot, and when an overstuffed mailbox might be cause for concern. Kenny has called 911 a few times when he noticed retirees on his route hadn’t been collecting their mail. “I knew one customer had health issues and dementia,” he says. “They got in and found out she had fallen and was severely dehydrated.”

7. THE MAIL TRUCKS ARE REALLY OLD.

postal worker walking next to a mail truck
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Driving a truck with a right-mounted steering wheel might seem like it takes quite a bit of getting used to. It does, but the USPS largely lets carriers fend for themselves. “There’s one day of training on the right-hand drive truck,” Dan says. “Actually, about half a day of actual training. You have to become accustomed to limited visibility [and] learn to drive using the mirrors.” The truck fleet, he says, is actually made up of vehicles that might be older than most everything else on the road. “The standard boxy mail truck people are accustomed to seeing is called a Grumman LLV, a Long Life Vehicle. It's basically an aluminum box on a modified Chevy S-10 Blazer chassis and drive train. They're all 25 to 30 years old at this point.”

8. THEY WISH YOU’D SPARE THEM THE JOKES.

All of the carriers we spoke with stressed how much they enjoy interacting with customers, but sometimes the jokes can wear a little thin. “I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you can keep the bills,’” Kenny says. “Everyone thinks they’re the first person who’s said it to you.”

Dan says he often has customers asking if they have a check for them, which he finds puzzling. “As a rule, we don’t know what’s in the mail.”

9. THEY ALSO WISH PEOPLE WOULD STOP USING BOXES AS TRASH CANS.

Those nice blue mail collection depositories? They’re for mail, not wadded-up trash. Adin has found garbage when picking up mail from the drop-offs.

And as a rule, only mail should go into the mailboxes at people's homes, though residents don’t always oblige. “People sometimes use them for storage. I’ve found tennis balls and house or car keys.” (Adin cautions you shouldn’t put keys in the box; it’s kind of an obvious place for burglars to look.)

10. THERE MAY BE A SYSTEM TO HOW YOUR MAIL IS ARRANGED. 

The next time you empty your mailbox, you may want to check how the correspondence has been arranged. Many carriers have a system for organizing your batch. Adin puts cards and personalized letters (typically good news) on top, with social security checks next. “Then it’s other First Class mail, [like] bills and insurance information,” he says, “and then bulk mail and then in order of size I sort the flats, magazines, and catalogs, so the largest is on bottom.”

And yes, carriers can typically tell when it’s your birthday, although they might refrain from congratulating you just in case they’re wrong. “I thought it was someone’s birthday one time,” Kenny says. “I said, ‘Hey, is it your birthday?’ But they were sympathy cards. Her husband had just passed away.”

11. CATS AREN’T BIG FANS.

cat in a mailbox slot
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On one of Adin’s previous routes, trying to put mail through a door-mounted slot was a delicate operation. “Cats can sometimes be aggressive,” he says. “On my previous route, there was a cat which would strike through the mail slot. I had to be careful putting anything into it. My current route has a cat which purrs and meows playfully through a screened-in porch window until you get close, then attacks.”

12. NO, THEY PROBABLY CAN’T DRINK WITH YOU.

In the heat of summer, Kenny gets frequent offers for bottled water or iced tea. Some customers who happen to be grilling outdoors might extend the courtesy further. “I’ve had people offer me a cold beer,” he says. “If they’re cooking out, they might offer me a burger." Most carriers keep themselves hydrated by carrying water in their trucks—and while beer might sound good, the government prefers their workers remain sober.

13. THEY ACTUALLY DON’T HAVE TO DELIVER YOUR MAIL.

Neither snow nor rain will prevent a carrier from doing his or her duty, but you being inconsiderate might. “There are a number of reasons why we can refuse to deliver to a given address,” Dan says. “Primarily it comes down to the safety of the carrier. If I can't safely get to your mailbox, I can bring the mail back. Reasons might include a dog which is loose or able to get to me when I try to get to the box, unsafe steps to the porch, icy conditions.” (The snow mandate doesn’t apply when you deposit a bunch of white stuff in front of the mailbox.)

In extreme cases, the post office can actually require customers to get a post office box and pick up mail themselves. “Anything which presents a hazard to the carrier, the carrier is within his rights to not deliver the mail. That would also apply to a customer who was harassing a carrier. But in that case we'd call the police. It's a fairly serious crime to interfere with a mail carrier doing their duties.”

14. THEY DON’T MIND JUNK MAIL.

“We don’t call it junk mail,” Kenny says. “We call it job security mail.”

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Map: How to Figure Out When Your Letter Will Arrive
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When you send a snail mail package or letter, unless you pay for tracking, you may not know exactly when it will arrive. If you stick your rent check in the mail on June 27, will it reach your landlord across town before the end of the month?

There’s a handy map to tell you. While they’re not exact predictions, the United States Postal Service has what’s called “service standards,” which dictate the agency’s goals for how long it should take a piece of mail to travel from one zip code to another. The map, which depicts the USPS's service standards as of April 1, is organized by both the class of mail (First-Class Mail, Standard Mail, etc.) and by the zip code of origin.

By consulting the map, you can figure out your mail’s travel timeline and see a rough portrait of how mail travels throughout the country. It varies not just by state, but by region. For instance, a magazine (Periodicals class) originating in Portland, Oregon, should arrive in Seattle in three days, but will take four days to arrive in eastern Washington. Standard Mail might take as long as five days to reach Seattle, as seen below:

A color-coded map of USPS service standards for mail originating in Portland.
USPS

If you spring for first class mail, you can expect more speed. A piece of First-Class Mail sent from New York City will reach most locations in the northeastern U.S. in two days, and the rest of the continental U.S. in three.

A color-coded map of USPS service standards for mail originating in NYC.
USPS

If you want to reach Guam, First-Class Mail will take five days, though that’s a pretty far cry from the 17 days the same route takes via Standard Mail:

A color-coded map of USPS service standards for mail originating in NYC.
USPS

Again, all these are standards, meaning they don’t necessarily reflect the reality of every mail delivery. But they are a good way to estimate when you can expect that postcard or check to arrive once you stick it in the mail if everything goes right.

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