Fall 2012

The Republic of Letters: An Interview with Nancy Pope

Going through the mail

Joshua Bauchner and Nancy Pope

Letter carriers heading out on their rounds from New York City’s main post office, 15 June 1936. All images courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

At Cabinet, we spend a significant amount of time thinking about the mail: Will a package with total dimensions just half an inch over the maximum for international first-class mail be rejected? Will our newly double-banded bundles of magazines pass the “perfect bundle” test for periodicals-class mail? We have developed an especially intimate relationship with the United States Postal Service, as the generally superb and deeply discounted periodicals class of mail is our lifeblood. In navigating the hairy ins and outs of the USPS, we made friends (our phenomenal daily letter carrier, Raymond Bullard) and enemies (the mysterious Anthony B. Street, overseer of no. 1 sacks at the Morgan Business Mail Entry Unit in Manhattan). Yet we remain, like most people, ignorant of and somewhat amazed by the actual functioning of the post. As Kafka wondered nearly a century ago, “How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter!”

Perhaps because of the basic physical nature of the mail, the post and its workings seem largely intelligible, if not downright simple—especially contrasted with the electronic communication technology that followed it. One imagines the post working merely via a hands-across-the-world-type human chain. But it is precisely the seemingly simple nature of postal functions that obscures the complex logistics that actually ferry mail from person to person. Joshua Bauchner spoke to Nancy Pope, historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, about how the logistics of the postal system cut across transportation, technology, management, economics, the law, and beyond, and how it challenged those in charge of it to think in ways both tremendously pedestrian (how to convince people to use ZIP codes) and ambitiously radical (the penny post and the Universal Postal Union).

Cabinet: Let’s start with something very basic: When I send a hand-addressed letter from here in New York to a friend in Oakland, how does it get there? Why do letters go places when I put them in the mailbox?

Nancy Pope: Getting the mail from one place to another has four basic segments: acceptance, processing, transportation, and delivery. Acceptance can happen in your mailbox, in one of the on-street blue collection boxes, or at a local post office, and conveys your letter, via the local post office, to the nearest processing center; this still happens mostly by hand. The next two steps are really all a question of automation, as they have been since after the end of World War II. Processing comes down to machinery. Each of the three different types of mail—letters, packages, and flats, which include catalogues and magazines—has its own way through the system, its own machines. Your letter first goes through a culler, which separates the letters from the packages. It then enters a machine that does facing and canceling. The machine finds the stamp thanks to a phosphor in the stamp; it senses the phosphor, flips the envelope face up if necessary, cancels the stamp, and sends the letter on to a barcode machine, which will actually read the address, your handwriting. It takes a picture of your handwriting, compares it using OCR to a database of known addresses, and, once it makes a match, sprays a barcode onto the envelope. From then on, everything that happens to that letter happens because of the barcode.

The barcode encodes all sorts of information about that letter: Where and when it was deposited, what machine and facilities it has been through. But it also tells the next machine exactly where on the letter carrier’s route your friend’s building shows up—part of the barcode is an eleven-digit ZIP code, specific to the building. By the time the letter leaves a processing facility in New York to get on a plane—transportation—to go to Oakland, most of the work is done. In Oakland, another machine reads the barcode, identifies the appropriate carrier, route, and specific building, putting the letter with other items for that building in the correct place. The carrier grabs the envelopes, set up in order, and out the letter goes for delivery. At this point, flats have been sorted via their own system and integrated with the letters. Packages are still processed on their own.

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