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First Automated Post Office in the U.S. Issue

160 Providence, RI- 4c First Automated Post Office single postage stamp with blue illustration
4c First Automated Post Office single postage stamp

On October 20, 1960, the Post Office Department placed into service a new mail processing facility at Providence, Rhode Island, and widely promoted it as "the first automated post office in the United States." Intelex, a subsidiary of the International Telephone & Telegraph conglomerate, built the thirteen-acre facility under contract and turned it over to the Post Office Department ready to operate. It incorporated the first automatic, high-speed sorting, facing, and cancelling machines as well as three miles of conveyor belts that moved mail between processing areas within the plant and to the loading docks for transport. This stamp, which depicts an architect's rendering of the new facility, was the first US issue that directly celebrated the Post Office Department.

When the idea for a postage stamp publicizing the new facility was presented to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee on June 28, 1960, it was unanimously rejected as "obviously self-serving." The committee further predicted that the stamp would be "unpopular because it is promoting automation at a time when unemployment is increasing." Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield authorized the stamp anyway (the committee's findings are not binding), and it proved very popular: 833,306 copies of the stamp were sold on the first day of issue, and 458,237 first day covers were serviced. The success paved the way for future postal themes on stamps, including the 1963 5-cent City Mail Delivery issue, the 1971 8-cent United States Postal Service logo issue, and the 1974 Postal Service Employees issue.

The 4-cent stamp paid the domestic first-class letter rate. It was printed in dark blue and carmine ink on the Giori press in sheets of 200. These were further divided into four panes containing fifty stamps each for shipment to post offices. Victor S. McCloskey, Jr., and Arnold J. Copeland designed the stamp, and Charles A. Brooks engraved it.

While the stamp was a great success, the same could not be said for the project it celebrated. Known officially as “Project Turnkey,” the post office of the future had more than its share of problems. The name Turnkey was selected because the building was to be set to work processing mail with the “turn of a key.” Unlike existing post office buildings, the Providence, RI building was constructed to fit the new, large machines. The one-floor building design used only two supporting columns, maximizing floor space for the use of mail processing machines.

A 1962 report to Congress revealed that the project was not adequately processing mail for the area. A number of machines were not being used to their full potential, while several had not been put to use at all. Employees had not received adequate training to operate the machines, which led to malfunctions and equipment failures. A year earlier, the “Washington Post” reported that a US House subcommittee had concluded that Project Turnkey “failed miserably.”¹The Turkey project, created by Arthur Summerfield, one of the Department’s most forward looking Postmasters General, was greatly criticized by his successor, J. Edward Day. Postmaster General Day suggested that project’s name “might be rendered more appropriate by knocking out the “n” in turnkey.”²

ENDNOTES

1) Brief Summary – The Post Office Department’s first 100 days under Postmaster General J. Edward Day.

2) George Dixon, “Washington Scene: The Stamp of Mr. Day,” The Washingotn Post Times Herald, February 14, 1961, A13.

Written by Nancy Pope and Daniel Piazza
October 2010