Years ago, before I had a blog, I had great fun with mail art, submitting work to mail art calls and corresponding with several mail artists. Then my hiatus from work ended, and I had less time or energy for this entertaining hobby. A couple of months ago, almost accidentally, my interest in mail art and snail mail found new impetus, and I began to increase the number of letters I was writing and to begin making and decorating envelopes and postcards.
In the serendipitous way of things, NetGalley recently
offered Neither Snow Nor Rain, and I thought it would be interesting to learn a little about the postal service that we all take for granted.
That I would find this book so entertaining, so funny and fascinating, and in the final sections, so somber--came as a surprise.
The history of the U.S. Postal Service, its origins in England, letters without envelopes (any extra sheet of paper increased the price), the American postmasters from Ben Franklin through the present, the Pony Express, the battles with private carriers, the introduction of stamps, the innovations with railroads and rail mail, the danger of early air mail, the almost incomprehensible volume of mail handled, and so much more are written about in a way that is not only educational, but compelling.
"The U.S. Postal Service is a wondrous American creation. Six days a week, its army of 300,000 letter carriers deliver 513 million pieces of mail [a week, yall!]], 40 percent of the world's total volume. In parts of America that it can't reach by truck, the USPS finds other means to get people their letters and packages. It transports them by mule train to the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Bush pilots fly letters to the edges of Alaska. In thinly populated parts of Montana and North Dakota, the postal service has what it refers to as "shirt pocket"routes, which means the postal workers literally carry all their letters for the day in their shirt pockets. At a time when the USPS is losing several billion letters a year to the Internet, it still has to do this six days a week because it is legally required to provide universal service to every American home and business."
"Long before Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States, he was the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. Harry Truman held the title of postmaster of Grandview, Missouri. Walt Disney was a substitute carrier in Chicago. Bing Crosby was a clerk in Spokane, Washington. Rock Hudson delivered mail in Winnetka, Illinois." And William Faulkner was fired from his post at the University of Mississippi.
Montgomery Blair was postmaster general under Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Blair started free home delivery and city residents had their mail delivered twice a day. Blair also instituted railway mail service and had clerks ride trains, sorting letters as the went. "The Railway Mail Service became an elite operation within the Post Office Department. Clerks who rode the rails threw bags of letters from speeding trains and grabbed incoming ones with hooks. They memorized as many as 4,000 post office addresses in order to sort the mail faster."
Mark Twain couldn't recall an address and wrote: "For Mr. C.M. Underhill, who is in the coal business in one of those streets there, and is very respectably connected, both by marriage & general descent, and is a tall man & old but without any gray hair & used to be handsome. Buffalo N.Y. From Mark Twain. P.S. A little bald on the top of his head."
Mr. Underhill received his letter.
OK-- this always happens when I read good nonfiction, I highlight almost every other page.
As the book drew to a close, however, it became evident that the history of the USPS may be near its end. Junk mail is now the majority of the mail handled and delivered.
Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, who retired in 2015, said that the bottom line is "With the exception of the holidays and your birthday, think about your own mailbox. When was the last time you got a piece of mail that had a stamp on it? You don't get it."
We pay our bills online, we sent texts and emails. We appreciate the ease and convenience of these technologies. But do we want to do without the postal service? A friend said that she just expects the mail to be there. So do I. It has always been there.
When I decided to participate in A Month of Letters (the challenge of sending something in the mail each day) none of this was on my mind. Synchronicity, serendipity, that strange coincidental kind of thing happened to make this book available at a time when I was in the mood to genuinely appreciate it. Mr. Leonard has done an outstanding job.
And I thoroughly enjoyed it...right up until the end. The prospect of the demise of the USPS saddens me.
Nonfiction/History. April 5, 2016. Print length: 288 pages.