DCSIMG
Systems at Work

1936

Handle with Care

Christmas holiday packages often overwhelmed post offices.
Christmas holiday packages often overwhelmed post offices.

By the mid-1930s, the U.S. parcel post system was more than 20 years old. It had opened a new world to rural Americans. Products that rarely left cities only a few years earlier now appeared at their doorsteps. And farm produce traveled to urban markets by mail.

Businesses depended on the efficiency, reliability, and security of the parcel post. A parcel that arrived late was sometimes no better than one damaged or lost.

Parcel Post zone rate map
Parcel Post zone rate map
The Chicken or the Egg?
From Washington State to Alaska
Post Route Map of the Territory of Alaska, 1937
Post Route Map of the Territory of Alaska, 1937

Chickens can have a hard time wintering in Alaska. So, in the spring, an Alaskan farmer ordered eggs from Seattle in time for them to hatch into chicks after they reach Alaska.

Packages travel at different rates based not only on size and weight, but on distance. In 1913 with the introduction of Parcel Post, the Post Office Department began dividing the nation into zones to help determine reasonable postage for parcels.

When a post office clerk weighed the egg crate with a scale like this, he or she learned that it weighed between one and two pounds. Parcel post to Alaska was 15 cents for the first pound and 11 cents for each additional pound. The crate’s postage was 26 cents.

The eggs travel from an eastern Washington farm to Seattle by rail, and on the way they are sorted into a sack for the Seattle and Seward RPO—a boat route. At the Seattle post office, the pouches await the next ship headed north and are carried aboard on the day the ship sails.

Alaska Star Route carrier
Alaska Star Route carrier

Four days later, the ship docks in Seward, Alaska. The pouch holding the eggs is taken to the post office, and its contents are sorted for an Alaska Star Route that might carry them across the territory on a variety of vehicles—another ship, a small plane, or dogsled.

Helping Unclog the Mail

After World War II, mail volume grew every year—doubling between 1946 and 1966. Dependent on federal subsidies, the Post Office couldn’t buy enough machines and hire enough employees to keep up. In October 1966, a flood of holiday advertisements and election mailings choked the system.

The Chicago Post Office, the world’s largest postal facility at the time, was overwhelmed by mail. It stopped delivering mail for three weeks. Mail overflowed surrounding post offices. Soon the mail back up was felt across the country. Change was essential.

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