We Deliver Back-of-the-Book Especially for You

our special delivery runner logo and link to the home page.contact page header.
Home | Library | Exhibits | Highlights | Projects | Offers | Wantlist | Contact

The New York City Post-Office (Part 5)

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

Return to Part 4

The Agricultural Bureau at Washington commenced an annual distribution of “choice seeds” through the mail, and good times dawned again for these old Dutch-Church rats. Once possessed of the secret of the rich contents of the plethoric mail-bags, the rats soon became such experts that they could smell a paper of marrowfat peas buried in newspaper walls as solid as an iron safe. In the pursuit of an honest living they have sharpened up their teeth until they can bore through a pile of compressed mail matter with the precision of an auger. They revel in cutting into leather pouches, laughing at the tough exterior, and treating the “patent, compound, burglar - proof padlocks’ with infivmite sscorn. It is asserted by some of the old clerks, who have been hiddgn away for a quarter of a century in the damp vaults of the church until they are as gray and as sharp as the rats, that these rodentia read the agricultural papers; and the annual announcement in the Tribune of the distribution of seeds is celebrated in the lower vaults by a grand ‘‘rat—ification.”

From this era onward the New York post-office becomes of too much magnitude to permit individuals to figure prominently in its history. Its leading characteristic, from the time it was established in Nassau Street, has been a constant increase of business. Robert H. Morris, W. V. Brady, Isaac V. Fowler, John A. Dix, Wilhiam B. Taylor, succeeded each other as postmasters without any marked change in the routine except the employment of additional clerks. Abraham Wakeman accomplished a long-desired reform by abolishing the independent offices of Washington Heights, Bloomingdale, Manhattanville, and Yorkville, making the whole island one postal district. The names of James Kelly and P. H. Jones bring the succession down to our day.

The hard - working employes, who have carried on the department with such marked success that they have made its leading features the rapidity and correctness with which the mail matter is received and distributed, seldom appear above the surface. There are a few whose efficiency, knowledge of details, and unvarying faithfulness have secured them against the unhappy law of removals, which is especially an evil in the post-office. Among these “permanents” we must mention Colonel John Dodd, regularly in service for fifty-four years, and now the oldest clerk in the department. Fifty years ago it was his business to carry the Southern mail on his shoulder down to the Cortlandt Street landing, transport it by skiff to Paulus Hook (Jersey City), and receive the Southern mail in let in. The change ma be vaguely realized when we consider that it takes four stout horses each day to draw the same mail to the “Washington train.” In spite of the infirmities of advancing years, at eighty the colonel was faithfully at his post in the letter-delivery department. A year or more ago his desk and its business, when he was absent from duty, were moved up stairs. The old colonel, after this change, went to his accustomed place, and found it occupied by another; where there had heen letters were piles of newspaper packages — all was changed. He was shown where was in future to he his desk, but he objected, and wanted to he put on duty in his old location; the spot and its surroundings had become necessary for his happiness. This, of course, was impossible, and he has never recovered from the disappointment. In the month of, June, 1869, when the foundations of the new post-office were laid in the Park, he was a prominent actor. When all had been concluded the old government officer observed, “Now let me live to see this building completed, and I will die content.”

The windows of the post-office for the distrihution of letters and the selling of stamps, “in sums less than one dollar,” are interesting places to study the cosmopolitan character of our busy population. It is not uncommon to witness people of every nationality “in line,” waiting for their turn to inquire for correspondence. The ladies’ window is especially a centre of observation; and the appearance of the sex dressed in gay colors and wreathed in smiles lightens lip the otherwise care-worn, pell-mell, rushing, and sombre-looking crowd. Here the “young lady of the period” contrasts with the old crone whose undutiful son is “off at sea.” The widow in her weeds throws sly glances at the dashing clerk; her hopefulness of the future contrasting strongly with the face of the suffering wife, who, sad and discontented, turns abrupt1y away because her absent spouse “had failed to write.”

During the rebellion the post-office clerks, by virtue of their duties, were often made unwilling participants in many sad scenes and associations. There was a terrible significance in the hymn or prayer book returned “from the front,” often saturated with blood or marred by the bullet. Then there were the packets of unclaimed letters, dictated by loving, patriotic hearts, returned to the mother, wife, or sweetheart of the soldier, hearing the formal but terrible indorsement of the adjutant of the regiment, of “William Brown, killed in battle.” It was often almost like stabbing the recipients to the heart to hand them such a fatal gift, and the look of unutterable anguish that sometimes followed haunted the day musings and midnight dreams of the sympathizing official. But there sometimes, nay, often, came a letter that conveved to wife and family a respite to agonizing suspense, and then the old post-office was for the moment bright, and the dangers of war for an instant were forgotten. Lessons of human nature are taught at the delivery window of a post-office in the classified peculiarities of the universal patrons of the “republic of letters,” among which are developed the common facts, that “clergymen, as a class, and women, universally, are the most difficult to please ;“ certainly they seem to complain the most.

Romantic incidents are not unusual in the history of specific mails. When the Japanese empire was opened to the outside world, the first mail from that legendary country was sent to New York in a sailing vessel via San Francisco, Panama, and Aspinwall. By a coincidence a mail from China via England arrived at the post-office simultaneously, and the written ideas and wishes of these two Oriental nations for the moment reposed side by side. In their route of destination they separated, and made the circuit of the world, to meet again in our great Western city of “mushroom barbarians.” But speculation is brief in the post-office when work is to be done; the words, “Who separates ?“ are heard, the “travelers” are “broken up,” and piecemeal sent to their various destinations.

Some years since a steamer running between Liverpool and Quebec was involved in a terrible storm that swept over the mouth of the St. Lawrence. The stanch ship was lost, and all living creatures on board perished. Two months afterward the divers, among other things, recovered from the wreck the New York city mail, and it was promptly forwarded to its place of destination. When opened the contents were found comparatively safe; the letters were carefully dried and duly distributed; and these frail, delicate, paper memorials of thought remained intact, while the iron-ribbed ship and the brave men who commanded her still repose in their ocean grave.

No service in any department of the federal government is more exacting in hours of labor and hard work than the post-office, and no government service has more enthusiastic and faithful officers. On a recent occasion a ward politician was appointed to a place in the post-office. He was set to work “killing postage stamps” — that is, defacing the stamp on mailed letters. He worked away from 8 o’clock A.M. until noon, then deliberately quit his table, went up to the postmaster, and drawled out, “Look here, gineral, I wanted an app’intment, not hard work; and ef this is the best thing you can do for me, I’ll quit.” And the “wielder of powerfel political influence” quit, and departed to the more genial quarters of a drinking saloon up town.

The pay of the post-office clerk is exceedingly small, and, however earnest he may be as a partisan, the political tax annually levied is by no means a bright spot in his hard fortunes. We have mentioned how Mr. Coddington treated this custom; another example may not be out of place. When General Dix was post-master he was approached on the subject of allowing a subscription to be taken among the clerks for party purposes. He appeared to promptly coincide with the idea, making only one condition — that it should he taken up in his own way. He accordingly took a small blank book and wrote the following:

“This book will be handed to you by Mr. —, who is authorized to collect moneys of the clerks for political purposes; but I wish each clerk distinctly to understand that giving funds for such a purpose is at his own option. Those who give will not be helped by it, and those who refuse will not be injured.”

Possibly it is necessary for us to state that while the clerks saved their money, and the party wasn’t injured, the “grand central committee” was deprived of nothing more nor less than the means of indulging in a Champagne supper.

A post-office clerk, under the most favorable circumstances, has a delicate and responsible position to hold, for he is constantly subjected to suspicion. Money letters can be robbed before they reach the office, and can be robbed before they reach their owners after they leave the office. One day a person called on the postmaster with a letter written by a lady of great respectability, in which it was stated that “inclosed you will find ten dollars in liquidation of your bill against me.” But.the letter had apparently been opened, and the remains only of the edges of the remittance, sticking to some paste, were left behind. The bill, save the remains of the slight mutilation alluded to, was gone. By examining the fragment still adhering to the paste the word one, one, one, oft repeated, presented itself. Thus this base attempt to swindle an honest creditor and defame the credit of the post-office was exposed.

People who come to the post-office and make complaints of being robbed, when they discover that they were mistaken never call and make reparation, or relieve the department of the charge made against its employes. A merchant, mutch excited, complained that a letter sent to him “by a most responsible house,” containing $500, had not been received. This charge was fortified by showing a letter from the postmaster who mailed the missing letter, certifying that it was forwarded, and contained the $500. Detectives were at once set to work to unravel the iniquity, but all efforts proved unavailing. Finally the post-office authorities, after weeks of hard work, called on the complaining merchant and asked if he had heard any thing about the missing money. “Oh,” replied the gentlemnan, with great vivacity, “that’s all right; by mistake that letter was thrown into the safe, and remained unopened nearly four weeks. Funny, wasn’t it ?“ Not even an apology was made for charging the post-office with purloining the money, or for giving its officers so much unnecessary trouble.

Charges of dishonesty against the post-office are made where nobody but “extraordinary circumstances” are to blame. A letter containing two $1000 bills in it was delivered by the carrier, who, according to custom (ignorant of its contents, of course), at the house of its owner, shoved it into the hallway, under the door. The letter was missing. Complaint was made at the post-office; evidence was produced that the money had been forwarded. The detectives were set to work to trace out the robbery. The poor carrier, and the clerks in the office who handled the letter, were placed under surveillance. The clerks where the letter was mailed were “shadowed.” Every dollar they expended after the probable robbery was secretly inquired into, to see if any of them had been at any given time, after the letter was lost, unusually “flush;” but all signs failed. After a long time the floor covering of the hall was taken up, and there was the letter, “safe and sound :“ the unfortunate carrier had thrust it under, instead of over, the oil-cloth.

The misdirection of letters is the cause of serious charges against the post-office. A letter containing $700 was mailed from Albany to New York. It was sent from a well-known person, and the package which was supposed to contain the letter, made up in Albany, was not opened until it reached New York. Both ends of the line were under suspicion. It was stated that the letter was addressed Mr. _ _ Broadway, New York. After a long search it was found that the letter had never left Albany at all, being directed by mistake Mr. _ _ ,Broadway, Albany, and the faithful clerks had thrown it into their own city delivery box instead of forwarding it to New York. The confusion in the mind of the writer of the letter grew out of the fact that there is a Broadway in both cities, and from force of habit he wrote the wrong address.

Miserable chirography is one of the most prolific causes of post-office inefficiency. It is safe to say that unmistakenly written directions would remove nine-tenths of the complaints. What is a nonplused clerk to do with letters addressed to “Mahara Seney,” “Old Cort,” or “Cow House,” when Morrisania, Olcott, and Cohoes were really intended?

One day, possibly four years ago, Mr. Kelly was sitting in his private office opening his personal letters, and enjoying the delusion that every thing was working satisfactorily, when, to his surprise, he found one letter from Washington calling his especial attention to the “inclosed editorial,” cut from the Tribuae, in which the carelessness of his clerks, and the generally unsatisfactory manner with which he carried on his business, were dilated upon, ending with the startling announcement that, under the present management of the department, it took four days to get a letter from New York to Chappaqua, distance about thirty miles, and made literally no distance by a fast railway! Consternation ensued, and Mr. Kelly, to commence examination into these serious charges, sent a special agent to Chappaqua for he envelope of said delayed letter. At the place named the official fortunately not only found what he went after (the envelope), but also Mr. Greeley and “Miles O’Reilly.” After due explanations the envelope was handed to Miles O’Reilly, with the query of what he thought was the meaning of the superscription.

“Why,” said that genial wit, who had once been a deputy postmaster, “the devil himself couldn't make it out.”

The envelope was then brought to the attention of the berated clerks, who looked at it with glazed eyes, the hieroglyphics suggesting somewhat the same intellectual speculation that would result from studying the foot-prints of a gigantic spider that had, after wading knee-deep in ink, retreated hastily across the paper.

At the post-office, when they distribute letters, those on which the direction is not instantly made out, to save time, are thrown in a pile for especial examination; if a second and more careful study fails, they are consigned to an especial clerk, who is denominated the chief of the bureau of “hards.” To this important functionary the envelope of Chappaqua was at last referred. lie examined it a moment, and his eye flashed with the expression of recognizing an old acquaintance. “This thing,” said he, holding up the envelope with the tip ends of his fingers, “came to me some days ago along with the other ‘hards.’ I studied the superscription at my leisure a whole day, but couldn’t make it out. I then showed it to the best experts in handwriting attached to the office, and called on outsiders to test their skill; but what the writing meant, if it was writing, was a conundrum that we all gave up. Finally, in desperation, it was suggested, as a last resort, to send it to Chappaqua,” which happened to be its place of destination. Such is the literal history of the reason of an earnestly written denunciation of the inefficiency of the city post.

We have traced the growth of the post-office of New York from the time when it found but partial employment for one postmaster and a single assistant to the present, and what a change! Language fails to give an idea; statistics pall on the ear in unmeaning sounds, and only confuse the mind. A few random illustrations must therefore suffice.

The discipline and efficiency of the city post is shown in the reminiscence that, twenty years ago, before there was a postal treaty with England, people in that country, according to their caprice, indorsed on the outside of their letters by what line of steamers they desired them to be sent. By some accident neither of the two composing the American line crossed from England in six months! The consequeuce was an extraordinary accumulation of letters indorsed “by American steamer;” and when the Washingtonn did reach this port, having “broken her shaft, and heen frozen up in the harbor of Bremen,” she had a six months’ mail on board. This enormous collection of letters was taken to the post-office, and the clerks, without neglecting their daily routine duties and working “overtime,” distributed this accumulation in ten days! The same number of letters, without interfering with the daily business of the office, would now be distributed in one hour!

Large publishing houses and newspaper establishments afford great assistance to the post-office by making up their own mails according to printed lists and instructions furnished by the Post-office Department. If this were not the case, the facilities afforded would not be adequate to perform the required service. To illustrate: If it were not advantageous to publishers to aid in the prompt circulation of their papers and magazines, and they should send their daily distribution to the post-office in one indiscriminate mass, that institution would be literally “avalanched;” floors, desks, clerks, and every available place for storage would be buried under one vast pile of accumulated mail matter.

Instead of there being as formerly only a few straggling letters, two hundred and fifty thousand postage stamps are, on an average, daily canceled, and that is a representation of the number of domestic letters delivered at the post-office every twenty-four hours.

It costs the government sixty thousand dollars annually for cartage to haul this vast amount of mail matter to the stations and railway lines.

One comparative statement more. The city of New York is divided into twelve postal stations, each one having its distinct officer and clerks. Station A, situated in the heart of New York, does a larger business than either of the cities of Buffalo, New Haven, Hartford, Hudson, or Troy.

Such is the epitomized history, illustrated by the post-office, of the growth and prosperity of the city of New York.