Water dripped constantly from the ice melting overhead and the heating was kept just barely warm enough to prevent ink from freezing. Such were the working conditions for the Post Office Department’s cancellation specialist, Charles F. Anderson, who was sent to run the first US post office in Antarctica.
Anderson worked in the science hall of the base camp of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition along side five other men in a 12 by 16 foot multipurpose room. He had with him a 21 by 16 by 18 inch safe to secure money orders, stamps, cancellation dies, and other valuables. The combination safe, now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, was marked conspicuously with the site of its use: “US Post Office Little America, South Pole.” The postal station was officially established on October 6, 1933 at the Little America base, located on the Ross Ice Shelf about 800 miles from the geographic South Pole.
The first installments of mail were shipped in 1933 and were to be processed in 1934. Expedition member Leroy Clark had been designated in charge of the postal duties in 1933 while the honorary postmaster, National Geographic Society Vice President Dr. John Oliver La Gorce, remained in Washington, DC. Clark fell behind processing the letters due to the cold, the ice, and having to move his work station several times. He also encountered equipment problems, including losing the rollers on the cancellation machine. A backlog resulted and the Post Office Department assigned Charles Anderson to finish the job.
Anderson reported to the southernmost US post office in January 1935. Describing his preparations for postal duties in Antarctica, Anderson said that: “I am taking full post office equipment with me. I have a cancelling machine, stamps, paper, pencils, inks, envelopes – in fact, everything that goes to make up a first-class post office” (Coontz). Once on site he put a supply of oiled paper to work and constructed a storm sewer to keep melt water off the mail. Anderson was used to varied conditions and traveled extensively for the Post Office Department. He spent decades inspecting mechanical equipment at first and second class post offices around the US. He had also become an expert on first day cover cancellations.
Indeed, special cancellation was the objective of the polar postal station. Its purpose was to handle the philatelic mail associated with Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition. A three-cent postage stamp, issued on Oct 9, 1933, celebrated this venture – depicting both the plans for the 1933-35 mission and the explorer’s previous achievements, including the first flight to the South Pole in 1929.
The expedition provided the transportation for all the mail sent by collectors desiring to receive a cancellation mark from the bottom of the world. Senders posted their addressed envelopes for the shipments south. To have their mail journey to and from one of the remotest spots on the planet, they had to enclose a money order for the three cent payment for the commemorative postage stamp plus a 50-cent service fee payable to the Byrd Antarctic Expedition.
According to Anderson, over 150,000 items were canceled at Little America, Antarctica. That included correspondence for both philatelic collectors and for the expedition crew. He prepared the mail for the voyage back north by securing it in waterproof paper, cartons, and double mail sacks that were locked. The load went first by tractor-pulled dog sleds across the ice and finally by ship, reaching San Francisco in March 1935.
Before leaving Little America, Anderson held a ceremony recorded on the expedition’s movie camera. He summarized the event in his official report: “Into a box I put a copy of the Postal Laws and Regulations, a Postal guide, photographs of the Postmaster General and the First, Second, Third and Fourth Assistants, Admiral Byrd and myself; three indelible lead pencils, a sponge cup and sponge, four blotters, a small can of ink and a letter stating these articles had been left by a United States postal employee” (US Post Office Department Stamp Design Files).
In establishing a post office at the Little America station, the US Post Office Department demonstrated that regardless of location it could provide the basic mailing operations of sorting, canceling, and delivering letters and packages. Postmarks, stamps, and addresses on an envelope bear the signs of the distances people have journeyed; they also signify the complex system of government-organized labor and transportation networks that ensure successful written communication.
The Little America camp eventually disappeared as an iceberg calved and drifted away from the Ross Ice Shelf. Mail still travels to US post offices in Antarctica for the research community as well as philatelic collectors who prize the cancellation service from the end of the earth.
- “300 Hear Anderson Tell Experiences in Little America.” The Washington Post. April 21, 1935. Pg. ST11.
- Byrd, Richard Evelyn. Alone. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938.
- Byrd, Richard Evelyn. Exploring with Byrd. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937.
- Coontz, John L. “A Postman Takes a Holiday.” Los Angeles Times. December 23, 1934. Pg. 16.
- US Post Office Department Stamp Design Files, Byrd Antarctic Expedition II Issue. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, National Postal Museum branch.
Written by Lynn Heidelbaugh