Through the Post

Have you ever been
curious about
what you can
(and cannot)
send through the mail?

How has it changed over time?

refer to caption
Egg shipping box

Location: Binding the Nation, “The Post”

Newspapers on display in the Binding the Nation exhibition
All of these newspapers on display in the Binding the Nation exhibition have the word “post” in their name. Why do you think that is, and what do you think that says about the importance of the postal service for early newspapers?
Binding the Nation Exhibition »

Would you be surprised to find out that the postal service wasn’t always known for carrying letters? Over 250 years ago, the majority of what went through the mail was newspapers, which were crucial for spreading information across communities. In fact, the position of postmaster became highly sought-after by newspaper publishers who could use it to both receive the latest news first as well as disadvantage competitors’ papers. Spreading news and information was an important function of the mail during the Revolutionary War. Today many people access most of their news digitally. How do you think the role of the U.S. postal system in spreading information has changed?

Portrait painting of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper business thrived after he took the position of Postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, at the age of 31, and was able to send out his own newspaper for free.
Painting of Benjamin Franklin »

Location: Systems at Work, “The Chicken or the Egg”

Queen bee crate
This small container was specifically for shipping a queen bee to a new hive. Bees and a variety of insects can still travel through the mail today.
Queen honeybee cage »

Parcel Post was introduced by the Post Office Department in 1913, thus allowing bulky farm and factory products (among other things) to be shipped through the mail at an affordable price. The law stabilized rates and opened up the market to all by increasing the convenience of shipping. The service also created a new market for shipping containers that could accommodate unusual requests. Shipping containers were specially designed for eggs, butter, and odder items.

metal box for mailing laundry
From the 1910s-1960s, college students regularly mailed their laundry back home. This box was designed specifically for that purpose. Parents could send a letter back with the clean laundry, but only with extra postage, as shipping only included the package.
Laundry box »
Parcel Post window exhibit
Postmasters in many towns created parcel post exhibits in their post offices. These exhibits often included displays of items that could now be sent through the mail with helpful hints for safe packing.
The Service in Use »

Location: Mail Call, “Mail and Morale”

Military personnel phonograph
During World War II, military personnel could record a message onto a phonograph album and mail it home. Listen to the original recording or read the transcript of this phonograph at Military Personnel Phonograph Recording.
The Mail Piece »

This unusual audio “letter” was sent home by a soldier in training to his family during WWII. Hearing a loved one's voice would have been a big change for families used to sending written letters. Both military personnel and their family members eagerly awaited their letter carrier and depended on the mail for maintaining communication with their loved ones. Sharing news and experiences by mail helped sustain relationships in challenging times. Charity organizations and companies sponsored correspondence, and phonograph “letters” like this to keep up morale during the war.

Open reel audio tape from Vietnam
Audio technology evolved, but audio letters remained important for those stationed overseas. This open reel audio tape was sent from Vietnam in 1969.
Listen to the audio or read the transcript: Open Reel Audio Tape, Vietnam 1969 »
Audio reel mailbox
A mailbox-shaped display case for military audio letters proclaims, “THE PENCIL AND PAPER OF THE ELECTRONIC AGE!”

Location: Behind the Badge, “Buyer Beware”

Scam job offer
Scam job offer from the Los Angeles Times in 1957.
Financial Frauds »

Not everything that goes through the mail is sent with good intentions. The Behind the Badge exhibition showcases a variety of frauds and scams that have traveled through the mail over the years, like the ones shown here. Even as scams continue to evolve in the digital age, the vast network of the postal system is seen as a lucrative opportunity for finding victims. Scams that operate via the postal system are investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Although the items in the exhibit might look ridiculous, mail scams often prey on vulnerable populations that are unable to determine their legitimacy.

Fake first day cover of Tricycle stamp
In 1989, inspectors collected and tagged this fake first day cover of the 6-cent Tricycle stamp issued in Childs, Maryland on May 6, 1985. Collectors will pay for picturesque envelopes from the first day a stamp was issued which means that there is profit in creating fakes.
Stamp Frauds »
The Mega II Rapid Weight Reduction Program book
"The Mega II Rapid Weight Reduction Program", shown here, was used as the basis for many weight loss and dieting scams sent through the mail. The book was used as evidence in a 1982 court case against the Millburn Book Corporation that grossed over $15 million in sales.
Avoid Scams »

Location: Mail Marks History, “Survivors”

What is invisible but can still be delivered through the mail? In the 1800s, health officials thought it was yellow fever. Postal workers used perforation paddles like this to puncture the mail and subject the contents to sulfur fumigation in the hope of stopping outbreaks of the deadly disease. These measures failed because they were based on false assumptions about how yellow fever spread. However, there are some deadly substances that can travel through the mail. Today’s decontamination practices are targeted, effective, and not nearly as invasive as the paddle but can sometimes damage the contents of the mail.

Perforation paddle used to puncture mail
Frontside of the perforation paddle.
Sketch of a mosquito on a perforation paddle
Backside of the perforation paddle.

Perforation Paddle »

Yellow fever is actually a virus spread by mosquitos (NOT by the mail). Check out the link to learn more about yellow fever and the mail: How Yellow Fever Once Affected the Mail »

Location: Mail Marks History, “In Times of Adversity – Pullout Frame 12”

Female employees at the Dead Letter Office
During the 1800s the Dead Letter Office was staffed primarily by women. Stereotypes are always evolving, in the 1800’s women were considered better at analytical puzzle solving than men. They were also considered more moral and less likely to abuse the power to open stranger’s mail and read their letters.
Postal Women in the Late 19th Century »

Not every item made it through the post. Unclaimed items and mail with illegible addresses or insufficient postage went to the Dead Letter Office for resolution. Many strange unclaimed items from Dead Letter Offices made their way into the collection of the National Postal Museum, including taxidermized animals and brass knuckles. Employees worked with the information available to them, including opening the envelope to read the letter, to decipher the mail’s correct address and owner—a process that could depend entirely on the worker’s own knowledge. Today, this task is carried out by the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The next time something you send goes missing, maybe it’s sitting in the “lost and found” awaiting the observant eyes of the next detective.

refer to caption
Blind Reading Scrapbook cover
Interior of Blind Reading scrapbook
This scrapbook, titled Blind Reading, was a showcase of exemplary work by the dead letter office. It is filled with examples of mail sent with nearly illegible handwriting and incorrect addresses, each with the correct address written on the other side by the successful clerk who had solved the mystery. This could have been both a trophy book and a training tool.
Dead Letter Album »
Table heaped with letters
The Dead Letter Offices were extremely busy, as seen in this photo captioned “One Days Collection Dead Letters”.

Looking to make your digital discoveries even more immersive? Explore our playlists, personally curated for each unique self-guide theme!