Post Office Dept. Research and Development, 1945-1970

Problems of Modernization

Refer to caption
By the late 1960s various sorting machines, such as the Multiple Position Letter Sorting Machine, or MPLSM, were a common sight across the country.

Problems of Modernization
The cost of processing a piece of mail inside post offices in 1968 was 5/6 of the total cost of getting the mail from one place to another. Actual transportation was only 1/6 of the total cost. Processing within the post offices thus “[received] the most mechanization effort. It consists of culling (separating of letters from other mail), facing (turning addresses right side up), cancelling (the stamp), sorting (dividing mail into destination piles), sacking and dispatching.”(1)

Much of the Post Office Department had to be revamped to accommodate new mechanized machinery in their buildings. Mechanization brought up a number of new issues. As a ubiquitous problem, the Department had a lack of money that it could spend or risk, and was losing money overall. The increased costs of mechanization would increase those losses, at least at first. Additionally, reliance on machines meant letter mail sizes needed to be standardized. Looming over much of the ideas of a mechanized future were postal service employees, who feared what it might mean for their future.

Lack of Money
The Post Office Department often operated in the red, looking to Congress to provide additional funding as needed to keep mail moving each year. This lack of easily accessible funding delayed many projects that could have helped modernize the Department more quickly and easily. The Bureau of Research and Engineering had a shortage of men in every department for the tasks that they were trying to accomplish, and too many tasks assigned from too many offices. The Laboratory Staff Chief of the Postal Laboratory wrote in a memorandum to the Assistant Director for Research and Development that “For every new project that is presented to the Laboratory, with priority, the work on an existing project must be stopped for an indefinite period. A project submitted to the Laboratory on July 20, 1962, from the Bureau of Operations, involving only 24 man-hours work, had to be continually set inside for projects of higher priority. This project was not completed until November 1, 1962.”(2) Many projects stayed in the research stage, waiting for funding. Some of these projects included “electric vehicles for mail delivery, smaller and cheaper optical character readers for smaller cities and voice recognition of ZIP Code(3) numbers by machines for sorting purposes.”(4)

Lack of Mail Standardization
A major issue that came with mechanization was standardization of the mail. Studies were done by the Post Office Department which tried to determine the best sizes for letters so that standard sizes could be given to the public to use. Furthermore, there was no set standard for how a post office would process the mail. This caused difficulties when engineers were trying to design new post office buildings.(5)  Nevertheless, the main problem was that there was no standard for letter sizes, essential to mechanization.

In a study of mail standardization, consultants found that “Standardization of product or throughput is a prerequisite to a program of mechanization, mass production or mass processing, be it in the Post Office, in manufacturing, or in distribution.”(6) The consultants found that there were 15 main characteristics that letters had that would affect how they are handled. These characteristics are: “shape, maximum size, minimum size, thickness, length-to-width ratio, number of sizes, envelope closures, self-mailing closures, window envelopes, contents, material, color, printing, stamps or stamp substitutes, addressing.”(7)  The study concluded that the majority of mail that was sent through the postal system was within the limits that the current machines could handle, but for all mail to be able to pass through the mechanized system, that a set of standardizations would need to be created.

In 1960 the Post Office Department released a set of standards that would have to be followed for letter mail. All letter mail had to be a minimum of three inches in height and at least four and a half inches in length. Furthermore, letter mail had to have a rectangular shape. All edges of envelopes of mailers would have to be fully sealed, and it was recommended that the minimum ratio of short edge to long edge of the letter be 1 to 1.414.(8)

New Issues
Some issues that did not matter before mechanization now became important considerations so that the system worked most efficiently. Some examples of new problems that were encountered with the use of machines include wet mail, metallic objects, and objects of odd sizes.

It was found that wet mail would have adverse affects on machines and would have to be dried before it could go through normal mechanical processing. Postal officials from New Orleans suggested that “tumbler dryer be provided with a pull through draft of conditioned air to dry the letter mail.”(9) The mail could thus be sent through the machines without any problems.
Metallic items, especially those like coins that were inserted in letters, could sometimes get stuck in machines and cause overall problems. Stamp cancelling machines especially had problems with coins, and jams could be caused because of them.(10) A suggestion that the Postal Laboratory had for helping allay the problem of metallic objects such as coins in letters was to put magnets in culling machines so that letters with metallic objects could be removed. However, it was found in testing that magnets would be of little value since they did not work very well (there could not be any other letter on top of those with metallic items, otherwise they would still pass through) and that other objects that caused problems with machines would still pass through because magnets would only attract ferrous items, and did this poorly. These objects included such things as brass objects, wood, and hotel keys. Thus, no magnets were placed in culling machines.(11)

Employee/Union Uncertainty
Modernization of the postal service was not looked upon highly by everyone. The largest groups that were against mechanization were the postal unions and employees. Actions that would lessen the amount of work for postal employees were decried by workers organizations.

In 1950 Postmaster General Donaldson called for cuts in services to try to alleviate the budget. At the time, urban mail deliveries were made twice daily. Deliveries would be cut to once a day for residents (although businesses would continue to receive multiple deliveries). Donaldson decided to cut post offices’ hours of operation as well as selected night mail processing shifts. Postal workers, and a large number of Americans, responded with outcries over service cuts. Among those testifying to a Senate committee was the President of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), who “[denounced] Donaldson’s order as a “rape” of the postal service.”(12) While the Senate group voted unanimously to restore postal service to what it had previously been, some changes stayed, including single day mail deliveries.

Employees feared that the installation of machines and mechanization of postal processing would threaten their jobs. Post offices and R&D were not the only areas suffering from low funding in the decades following the Great Depression and World War II. By the 1950s, postal unions believed that workers were owed the salary and benefit increases that had been put off or kept low for decades. Conditions were so bad in some areas that postal workers in the 1960s relied on welfare benefits for their families’ survival. The anger over continued low postal pay in light of increasing salaries in the public sector would continue to boil until it exploded in March 1970 in the wildcat postal strike. [Learn more about the postal strike]

Members of the public were also uncertain of how a mechanized future in the post office would affect them. One newspaper article from 1959 noted that “Your mailman may be a kind of UNIVAC that sees, feels, and moves automatically. Or he may be Chester Noonwook in Alaska who delivers mail over a 100-mile waste of snow with a team of huskies in winter, and over the Bearing Sea by canoe in summer.”(13) Whether the public or postal workers wanted it or not, the machines were brought in to cut down on costs, make the system more efficient, and to improve service. While “this [potential] ‘mechanical postman’ has neither patience nor curiosity,” he was going to be handling the mail anyway.(14)

The Post Office Department often acted to reassure postal employees that they would continue to have jobs no matter what happened with mechanization of the Department, even though both employee organizations and the Department realized that in the long run mechanization would inevitably lead to fewer postal employees.(15) Press releases distributed by the Department often “[emphasized] that modernization is to be gradual and that no regular letter carrier will lose his job as a result of this program.”(16) Future positions in post offices would not have the same kind of certainty, because one of the goals of mechanization was to ultimately cut down on the massive labor costs that the Department sustained every year. Instead, that Department stated that “if less mail carriers are needed in the future mailmen who leave the postal service by retirement, death, or other natural causes will not be replaced.”(17)  Thus over time the number of post office employees would decrease, but current fulltime employees would still have jobs if they wanted them.

But the Department went even further than just to say that the career jobs of post office employees would be safe. Department officials said that they believed postal employees would actually benefit, not lose out, from the introduction of machines into the post office. In another press release the Department stated that the “accelerated development and research program will not affect the jobs of career employees now working in the Post Office Department except to make their work more attractive and less tedious.”(18) That is to say, jobs would remain, but the nature of the job could change, possibly radically. Fewer postal employees might be needed to sort the mail by hand, but more would be needed to operate letter sorting machines or be mechanics instead. Job changes would require retraining, to be provided by the Department.

Not everyone was so convinced by the Department’s optimistic outlook. While the POD stated that postal employees would be working less tedious jobs and be able to put their skills to better use in the post office, many positions created because of the machines seemed to be just as, if not more so,  repetitive and boring than the tasks previously performed by postal employees. In a show of the new postal machines, “reporters brought in to observe the machine in action praised its impressive electro-mechanical capacities but wondered how easy it will be able to train operators to remember the 279 destination code numbers that hold the key to proper routing of a letter.”(19) These reporters recognized that the machines could definitely sort mail faster than someone sitting at a desk placing each individual letter in separate pigeonholes, but thought that “there was some question also about the challenging monotony of the operators’ jobs… observers wondered if being hitched to a tireless machine would prove to be any less tedious.”(20)

The Department continued to state its position that no career employees would lose their jobs into the 1960s. Although many workers and the unions continued to debate the placement of machines in post offices, the Department’s stance was that it could not “be blind to the need—indeed the responsibility—to utilize mechanical and automatic equipment where it is economical and where from a service standpoint it is warranted.”(21) The POD could turn to mechanized post offices, or be forced to hire so many employees to handle the increasing mail volume that the postal deficits would climb to unmanageable heights. The Department cowed that the new jobs would “[encourage] development of skills among employees so that they may take advantage of new career opportunities created by increased mechanized installations.”(22)

The Post Office Department realized that they needed the cooperation of postal employees for the system to work because even the most advanced mechanized post offices would still require human beings to operate the machines. The Department released a statement that said “Mechanization… is certainly the most misunderstood and probably the most controversial aspect of the total postal operation.”(23) To clarify what the future of postal processing would be, they also stated that “it has been said in the past that mail handling of tomorrow will be by machine. This is a false and unsupportable assumption. But our mechanization program over the next decade will assure that the men handling the mail have the best and most efficient machines to help them do their jobs better.”(24)

Although the relations were often strained between the Department and its employees, machines were brought in and jobs were converted to those that then became necessary to have. The POD thought that the jobs would become more desirable as they required less heavy lifting and manual labor. However, many of the jobs became increasingly monotonous, such as keying in one letter per second into letter sorting machines.

The impact of the beginning decade of postal mechanization on postal employees was significant, but most who wanted to retain their jobs would be able to. But as machine technology progressed into the last decades of the 20th century, automated machines that could read addresses, sort mail, and even bring it to the carrier according to his or her route sequence, hundreds of postal workers would find their jobs changed beyond recognition, or erased.

Another issue that stood in the way of modernizing the Post Office Department was the politics that surrounded the Department. The POD was a government entity. For well over a century positions in the Department were given to people because of their political connections and not because of their knowledge of postal operations.

The Postmaster General starting in 1953 was Arthur Summerfield. In the Annual Report of the Postmaster General it was noted that Eisenhower’s was the “first administration ever to appoint to the Post Office Department a top management team with individuals of demonstrated business competence. Heretofore, appointments as Postmaster General were generally made as a matter of political reward with little regard for business competence.”(25)  Summerfield’s claim notwithstanding, while he was a successful businessman, he had come to the President’s attention thanks to his work as Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1952-1953.

From Postmaster General to postmasters, jobs were often obtained in the Department not because of skill, but thanks to an individual’s connection to a political party. In 1955 the Hoover Commission(26) determined “that political selection of postmasters "is incompatible with a businesslike management of the largest civilian business that the Government operates," and recommended that postmasters be named by the Postmaster General without Senate confirmation.”(27)  However, this did not happen until the transition to the United States Postal Service.(28) Politics did not only influence the selection of Postmaster General, but also the timing of Post Office Department announcements. Furthermore, “criticism of previous administrations was also politically charged.”(29)

One example of how politics may have been responsible for POD announcements and decisions is the media hype in 1960 over “Project Turnkey,” the first automated post office in the United States. One reporter noted that “The project was dedicated here last Oct. 20 in a blaze of publicity which postal officials say gave the wrong impression and got it off to a shaky start. There’s strong suspicion here that the timing of the dedication, a couple of weeks before the November election, was influenced by Republican politics.”(30)

New Postmasters General would often criticize the way  the Post Office Department was run under their predecessor (provided their predecessor belonged to the other political party). In Summerfield’s first year as Postmaster General he noted that “The first five months of the new postal management constituted a period of transition between a system of postal management which had fostered little change in the status quo over successive decades and a new postal management deeply conscious of its responsibility to the public, as expressed in the words of the President, to “…institute a program directed at improving service, while at the same time reducing costs and decreasing deficits.””(31) The Postmaster General who succeeded Summerfield, J. Edward Day, also had comments about the previous administration. He said that one of the main things he did in his first 100 days in office was that he cut costs by hiring consultants from within the government “in preference to high cost of outside consultants” and he “Stopped Ballyhoo on Mechanization: Exaggerated claims regarding post office automation and mechanization have been stopped. We are in favor of mechanization, but we want to stick to proven methods of helping the employees handle the mail.”(32) Furthermore, he stated that some of the machines that were developed during Summerfield’s time were “gadgets” that were useless, such as talking stamp machines.(33) He especially criticized Project Turnkey because it was not actually fully automated like it was claimed to be. He “suggested the name might be rendered more appropriate by knocking out the “n” in turnkey.”(34)

Some contracts that were given out were also based on political considerations. An inventor and engineer who did consulting work for the POD, Jacob Rabinow, stated that “The Post Office work was very nerve-wracking. Every June I didn't know whether they were going to renew or not renew a contract. I didn't know why they gave contracts to some people and not to me and vice versa. The relationships were politically motivated, terribly politically motivated.”(35) The politics in contract giving were especially predominant early on in the history of the Research and Development Department, but were constantly present in decision making.(36)

By the late 1960s, flaws in the postal system had already caused some breakdowns in the service, and caused the Department to suffer ridiculed for perceived growing ineptitude. In 1967 Postmaster General Larry O’Brien suggested that, to minimize the affects of politics on the Post Office Department, the Department could relinquish its status as a Cabinet level position and become a public corporation. This would hopefully make the POD more efficient by losing bureaucracy and making it perform more like a business. Compared to being part of the government, “the advantages to be obtained from the public corporation… derive from its autonomy in certain key areas such as prices, employment, and details of service.”(37)

This change would allow the Department to be more efficient because it would be able to make decisions without the level of bureaucracy and governmental approval that it needed before. O’Brien believed that the POD was becoming “self-destructive” and offered a proposal that the “Postal Service should: (1) cease to be a part of the President's Cabinet; (2) become a nonprofit government corporation, rendering essential public service; (3) provide postal services authorized by the Congress; (4) be operated by a board of directors, appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Congress; (5) be managed by a professional executive appointed by the board; (6) be given a clear mandate on the percentage of cost coverage for postal services, so that further revisions in rates-should they be necessary-would be made on a fixed formula basis.”(38) By eliminating some of the old traditions of the Post Office Department, O’Brien thought that the system could better perform. In 1970, the decision was made for there to be a reform of the post office, and in 1971 the United States Postal System was created.

1) John Van Deventer, “To Automate Tomorrow’s Mail,” Science News 94(10) (1968), 245.

2) Laboratory Staff Chief Postal Laboratory to Assistant Director for Research and Development, November 7, 1962, 1

3) ZIP Code numbers were introduced on July 1, 1963.

4)  “Streamlining Moves Ahead,” Science News 95(23) (1969), 550.

5) Mr. Cargill to Mr. Harriman, September 25, 1961, 1.

6) United States Post Office Department: Study of Mail Standardization, A.T. Kearney and Company, December 3, 1958, ii.

7) Ibid, ii.

8) Arthur E. Summerfield, Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1960 (Post Office Department, 1960), 17.

9) “New Orleans, Louisiana – Letter , Mail Dryer,” from Mr. Lewis to Mr. Feinster, August 29, 1960, 1.

10) “Metallic coins in Letters,” from Mr. Harriman to Mr. Lewis, December 7, 1961, 1.

11) “Magnet for Culling Belt,” from Chief Postal Laboratory to Assistant Director for Research and Development, September 7, 1962, 1.

12) “Senate Body Votes to Cancel Postal Bill,” Lodi News-Sentinel, May 10, 1950, 12.

13)  Josephine Ripley, “Automation Dogs the Postman,” The Christian Science Monitor, Jul 31, 1959, 18.

14) Ibid, 18.

15) “Old Vs. New: U.S. Mail: Mixed Bag of Technology,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 1, 1975, 22.

16) Post Office Department Press Releases 1954, Press Release No. 3102, Sterling 3-100—Ext. 500, “Untitled”, for release on July 13, 1954 (Post Office Department, 1954), 2.

17) Ibid, 2.

18) Post Office Department Press Releases July-Dec 1956, Press Release No. 254, For release 1:30 PM December 4, 1956 (Post Office Department, 1965), 2.

19) “Post Office Displays Roster of Modern Mechanical Assistants,” Christian Science Monitor, Oct 21, 1959, 1,

20) Ibid, 1.

21) 0538 – United States Post Office Department of the Deputy Postmaster General, Civil Service Commission Study: Effects of Automation and Mechanization on Federal Employees. USPS Technical Journals. December 20, 1963, 1.

22) 0538 – United States Post Office Department of the Deputy Postmaster General, Civil Service Commission Study: Effects of Automation and Mechanization on Federal Employees. USPS Technical Journals. December 20, 1963, 1.

23) Post Office Department Press Releases (General) Jan-June 1963, General Release No. 51 April 1, 1963 (Post Office Department, 1963), 3.

24) Ibid, 17.

25) Arthur E. Summerfield, Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1953 (Post Office Department, 1953), 2.

26) As president, Herbert Hoover, who chaired the commission, had named Walter F. Brown as his Postmaster General. Prior to the appointment, Brown had been a successful fundraiser for Republicans in his home state of Ohio.

27) Stanley Siegal, “The United States Post Office, Incorporated: A Blueprint for Reform,” Michigan Law Review 66(4) (1968) 620.

28) As a result of the creation of the U.S. Postal Service in 1971, the position of Postmaster General is now appointed by a Board of Governors of the USPS.

29) Husain M. Mustafa, The Mechanization and Automation of the United States Post Office (Center for Technology and Administration, American University, c. 1964), 28.

30) Jerry Klutz, “The Federal Diary: Postmaster Day Pushing Efficient Automation Project,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, March 5, 1961, B7.

31) Arthur E. Summerfield, Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1953 (Post Office Department, 1953), 1.

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

33) Jerry Kluttz, “Day in First Press Talk Hits Summerfield Postal Policies,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, February 10, 1961, B1.

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

35) “Computer Oral History Collection, 1969-1973, 1977,  Interviewee: Jacob Rabinow (1910-1999), Interviewers: Richard R. Mertz, Date: November 23, 1970,” Repository: Archives Center, National Museum of American History, 66.

36) Husain M. Mustafa, The Mechanization and Automation of the United States Post Office (Center for Technology and Administration, American University, c. 1964), 28.

37) Stanley Siegel, “The United States Post Office, Incorporated: A Blueprint for Reform,” Michigan Law Review 66(4) (1968), 638.

38) Ibid, 650.