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What Do the Ink Stamps On Your Mail Mean?

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December is peak season for the U.S. Postal Service. The average haul for the USPS on a typical day is 523 million pieces of mail, and that increases to 553 million pieces from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. (On the busiest day, December 16, the postal service processes approximately 640 million pieces.) Throughout the holidays, they deliver about 15.5 billion pieces of mail in total [PDF].

After sorting through your end-of-the-year influx of cards, gifts, family newsletters, and catalogs for weird chocolate companies, you may have wondered: What are those marks and numbers inked on top of items sent through the mail? And what do they mean?

The USPS has a collective general term for the stamps, meters, and other items used to process mail: “postage evidencing systems.” The ink markings on the upper-right corner are called “information-based indicia,” and they denote a piece has been paid for and signal where to enter it into the mail flow.

Postal marks—manually-pressed ink markings stamped over a stamp—are the oldest, most basic “indicia” and date back to 1660s England. At their most basic, they show the recipient where and when the piece of mail entered the postal system. In addition, postal marks have the dual purpose of marking a stamp as canceled and used. In complex cases, some show the item’s history of returns and forwards and damage. In the past, some postal agencies have had unique postmarks indicating the item’s method of travel (railroad, stagecoach, ship, etc.). U.S. mail sent with a stamp still bears the city and state from which the mail was sent and the date and time the USPS took custody of the item. It also often features a design, ranging from Lady Liberty to the snowflakes and message of “Happy Holidays” adopted by the USPS for the festive season.

As for those serial numbers on mail sent via an office postage meter, those numbers are vendor codes. They reveal the meter’s manufacturer and model. (There are currently six private contractors licensed to provide meters to the USPS: Data-Pac Mailing Systems, Francotyp-Postalia, Neopost, Pitney Bowes, Endicia, and Stamps.com). The series of numbers beginning with 000 is a serial number for the specific meter.

In one part of the country, people “hack” the USPS’s indicia to make their holiday mail even more festive. Each year, especially holly-jolly denizens from neighboring towns flock to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on the eastern edge of the state, to have their holiday mail stamped from Bethlehem.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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