The first woman ever hired to work for the United States Postal Service was Mrs. Adeline K. Evans, hired in July of 1862. She would go on to work in the Dead Letter Office for over thirty years. At the time of her hire, the Civil War had been going on for well over a year. Wars often times provided opportunities to women that were not previously available. As more and more men were enlisted in the military, employers began to seek out a new work force – in women. While at first they typically earned about 35% less than men who held equal positions, in 1870, federal legislation would be passed to grant pay based on class grade, rather than gender. This was not enforced until 1895, when a lawyer named Belva Lockwood took up the fight for women’s rights.
Vinnie Ream, hired around the same time as Mrs. Evans, was a fifteen year old from poor origins. She took the job to help out her family, and soon after, had a chance encounter with a sculptor at the U.S. Capital. She picked up a piece of his clay, and made a medallion of an Indian Chief’s head. It was so impressive, that she became an over night success and was soon creating sculptures of generals and congressmen. These people would later convince President Lincoln to sit for her. The finished product was so realistic, that in 1866, at age 18, she would become the youngest artist and first women to receive a congressional commission. The life-size statue that she sculpted of President Lincoln was unveiled at the U.S. Capital in 1871.
Alice B. Sanger began her career working in Benjamin Harrison’s law office. Two years later, he would become the 23rd President of the United States. As President, he appointed her as a clerk to work in his office, making her one of the first women to serve at the White House in that capacity. Later, in 1925, she would become the first woman to be named as Assistant Chief Clerk of the Post Office Department. Two years later, she would claim another first when she was put in charge of the Appointment Division of the Post Office Department. What she is most remembered for is her love of American flags. She created a collection of flags that consisted of one from each state in the Union, and they were displayed at the Post Office Department in Washington, DC. This led Postmaster Hays to ask her to design a flag for the Postmaster General’s office. She became affectionately known as the “Betsy Ross of the Post Office,” and is responsible for having designed the first official Post Office flag.
In 1985, Jackie Strange became Deputy Postmaster General, the highest position ever held by a woman in the Post Office. To date, more than ten women have held the position of Governor of the U.S. Postal Service, with more than forty women serving as officers. During any given year, almost 61% of postmasters around the nation are women. It seems as if the last uncharted territory for women in the United States Postal Service is the position of Postmaster General. I imagine that isn’t too far away.
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The Dead Office was started in 1825 by the United States Postal Service in an effort to deal with “undeliverable” mail. In 1992, the name was changed to the more politically correct name of Mail Recovery Centers or MRC. These are facilities where mail ends up for any number of various reasons, but most commonly because, 1. They are “Blind Readings” with incomplete delivery information or illegible handwriting and no return address, 2. They are accidentally dropped into a mailbox or accidentally picked up by a postal worker with other out going mail, or 3. They are prank letters or letters sent by children to fictional people (Santa Claus, etc.). Over 90 million pieces of mail end up in these centers each year.
Mail that cannot be delivered or returned to the sender will end up at one of the two MRC locations in Atlanta, GA or St. Paul, MN. The process for handling letters and parcels is different. Letters are scanned with a magnetic eye in an effort to “see inside” the envelope to look for anything of value. Typically, checks and important documents use a particular kind of ink that this scanner can detect. If it is determined that there is nothing of value, the letter is immediately shredded. Letters with valuables are then reviewed by MRC postal employees, who are the only employees authorized to open mail. These clerks consider this to be a scared honor and take an oath to not read any more than is necessary to identify the recipient.
As for packages, all are opened and inspected. About 25% of parcels will eventually find their way to either the originally intended receiver, or back to the sender. Those parcels that cannot be delivered are stripped of the valuable “impersonal” items and those items are then sent to the Atlanta Facility for regularly scheduled auctions. The money made is used to help partially fund the cost of this courtesy service the USPS provides to customers.
In some cases, the MRC will store an item that is definitely valuable, but not exactly something they could sell, say, for example, an urn filled the ashes of a deceased person, or 14-carat gold dentures. Among some of the more interesting items discovered were a box with a live python in it, preserved animal brains, live rodents and tarantulas, and even Atlanta Brave’s major league pitcher Pedro Borbon’s World Series ring (which was eventually returned once he had been tracked down after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then to the Toronto Blue Jays).
The best way to avoid having your mail end up at the MRC is to simply use a return address. However, in the event that your mail is not delivered, you can always call the USPS and ask them to start the process of tracking it down at one of the two centers.
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1. First Mail on the Moon
On June 20, 1969 US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Elwin “Buzz” Aldrin made history by becoming the first people to step on the moon. However, what most people do not know is that they made US Postal History as well when they sent the first piece of mail from the moon back to earth. It traveled a distance of over half a million miles, longer than any other piece of mail in history. A week before the scheduled lift-off, Postmaster General Winton Blount announced, “Apollo 11 will mark America’s first mail run to the Moon.” Artist Paul Calle designed a die for a postage stamp of how he envisioned the moon landing, and after the astronauts landed, they made on impression of this die to create the Moon’s first postage stamp. They also took an envelope with them, and cancelled it on the moon with the postmark “MOON LANDING USA” with the date of “JUL 20 1969”.
2. Missile Mail
In 1959, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield joined forces with the US Defense Department in an effort to find new and creative ways to speed up mail delivery. On June 8, a guided missile (warhead removed, of course) was fired to a Navy station in Mayport, FL from the U.S.S. Barbero submarine. The successful launch took only 22 minutes for the 3,000 pieces of mail to travel the 100 miles, and Summerfield envisioned that one day, mail delivery would take only hours, instead of days or weeks. However, since this form of mail delivery was not only costly, but also inappropriate during the middle of the cold war, it would be the first and only official use of a missile for mail delivery.
3. The Pony Express
While most people know about the Pony Express, few realize that it was only in operation for a mere 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. The Pony Express was an independently contracted company that operated under the name Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company with the goal of providing a faster delivery time that the USPS through extreme and seemingly impossible weather and transportation conditions. By setting up 157 stations along the 2,000 mile route, the company was able to cut delivery times from 24 days to a mere 10 days! However, this would also prove to be the company’s downfall. Even though they charged as much as 50 times what the USPS charged, they were still unable to stay within budget. They officially ended service on October 26, 1861 when the transcontinental telegraph system was put into place.
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