Postal Elements in the FSA Photography Collection

Themes Found While Researching

An older man stands at the indoor post office window reading the newspaper on the counter. Local advertisements surround the window.
S.H. Castle in his Post Office and Store in Barbourville, Kentucky (Marion Wolcott Post 1940).

When researching, there were many small overarching themes found throughout the postal photos in the FSA collection. The two largest and broadest themes found were the prevalence of post offices as community centers and the role the post office played as federal institutions in local settings.


Today, most post offices are designed with speed and efficiency in mind. Patrons will visit a post office to get stamps or pay for package postage for instance, and then leave. The local post office is not usually known as the prime hangout spot or town meeting place.

But, this was not always the case.

Five men sit on the porch of the post office while two young girls, one standing and one sitting.

Post office and General Store in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (Arthur Rothstein 1935).

Many different papers hang on the board, some overlapping others.

The Bulletin Board of the Questa, New Mexico Post Office (John Collier 1943).

The clock at the top of the message board is surrounded by many paper advertisements.

The Posters in the Combined General Store and Post Office in Olga, Louisiana (Russell Lee 1938).

A group of about eight men all dressed in farming clothes sit or stand in a clump on the porch of the post office.

Farmers Gathering on the Porch of the Linwood, Kentucky Post Office (Marion Post Wolcott 1940).

For many years (and still today in certain areas), post offices acted as both physical and cultural community centers. In the physical sense, many post offices were placed towards the center of a town. As many of the FSA photographs show, mail was important to many U.S. residents and placing the post offices in the center of town made it easier for people to access mail when in town running errands. In many cases (especially in small towns), post offices were combined with other locally important buildings such as general stores and city halls. This combination of post office/general store is one that cropped up many times during the searching of the FSA Collection. This marriage of two businesses made it possible and more convenient for people to make one stop to pick up goods and mail instead of two (photos five and six). People would run into neighbors, speak with the store owner, and be informed of any local information that was relevant. Many post offices had local message boards for people to place advertisements or information. In this way, the local post office became a cultural center as well as a physical one (photos seven and eight). With the combination of its location along with the frequency of patrons visiting, a local post office in smaller towns at the time of the FSA photos became a meeting place for residents. In photo nine it can be seen that farmers are using the front porch of the post office in Linwood, Kentucky as a way to meet and talk.

It is important to note that exceptions to the pattern of post offices as community centers were evident in urban areas, where post offices were physically separate from other businesses. While this was the case in some areas, the overall notion shown through the FSA’s photography is that post offices acted as both physical and cultural centers of many communities throughout the United States.


While local culture and feelings can affect the way a certain post office is run and its physical location in a community, it can not be forgotten that the United States Post Office was a federal institution. All post office buildings are technically branches of the broader postal system and thus are federally operated. This federal connection was noted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he was trying to bring the country back from the Great Depression. As James H. Burns says in his book Great American Post Offices, “Roosevelt realized that the Post Office Department was the visible form of the federal government in every community”.1 Although Roosevelt used this realization to create new community jobs through the construction of post offices, it was also used during WWII as a way of distributing federal information and services to local people. According to former Smithsonian curator Carl H. Scheele, in addition to the increasing volume of mail being sent during wartime, “the [Post Office] Department found itself increasingly involved in non-postal matters”.2 Many of these matters were highlighted by the FSA photographs from the mobilization and wartime periods.

Two women stand in line at a defense window dressed in printed skirts.

Women at the Defense Window of the San Augustine, Texas Post Office (John Vachon 1943).

A man stands with his back to the camera scratching his head and reading the enlistment sign outside of the post office.

A Passerby Observes an Enlistment Sign Outside the Post Office in Benton Harbour, Michigan (John Vachon 1940).

Two young boys read the air raid instructions that have been posted on the side of the general store counter.

Two Boys Look at Air Raid Instructions in their General Store/Post Office West Dansville, Vermont (Fritz Henle 1942).

Men wait outside the post office in the Lower East side of New York City.

Men Outside the Lower East Side of the New York City, NY Post Office (Dorothea Lange 1936).

A few examples of these non-postal practices can be seen in photos 10-13. With the advent of the war, defense windows started appearing in most post offices as a way for citizens to purchase war bonds, war stamps and other war funding mechanisms (photo ten). In addition to this, many post offices posted federal information on their local message boards which most of the time included draft posters of the “We Want YOU!” variety (photo eleven). Air raid instructions (photo twelve), World War One veteran bonus information (photo thirteen), and other federal program information were also highlighted by post offices as a means of publicizing it as much as possible across the country.

By expounding upon the post office’s important federal to local connection, post offices were hubs of not only local community and information but federal information as well. By showcasing the different federal relations found in local post offices, the FSA photographers highlighted the importance of having a federal institution in a local area.

  • 1) Bruns, James H., Great American Post Offices (United States of America: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1998), 94.
  • 2) Scheele, Carl H., A Short History of the Postal Service (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1970), 172. “The Department sold War Savings Bonds and Stamps, migratory-bird hunting stamps, internal revenue and motor vehicle tax stamps, took census of certain types of livestock, sided in the censorship activities reinstituted during wartime, assisted in the apprehension of criminals, assisted the Civil Service Commission by supplying secretarial help and holding examinations, conducting alien registration, and taking a census of women eligible for employment.” As can be seen by this lengthy quote, post offices took part in many federal operations in local areas.