Josna Rege

198. The Post Office

In 1900s, 1960s, 1980s, 2010s, Britain, history, Stories, United States, Work on April 18, 2013 at 11:59 pm

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Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
 —inscripton on the General Post Office, New York City, 8th Avenue and 33rd Street

Next to the public library, the post office is probably the public institution dearest to my heart.  Not only do I value the increasingly rare practice of letter-writing, but I think that postal workers, whether they are letter carriers, counter clerks, or mail room personnel, are the life-blood of the community; I hate to think that their days may be numbered. Two of my maternal uncles and my mother worked for the Post Office in England and one of my cousins was a post office employee in India. The cutbacks to the postal services in both Britain and the United States in recent years are sucking the life-blood out of an institution that in my opinion is one of the pillars of a functioning society. (I wonder: is that why British postboxes are shaped like pillars and named accordingly?)

photographer: Oxfordian Kissuth (wikimedia commons)

Pillar-Box  (photographer: Oxfordian Kissuth, wikimedia commons)

postman with bicycle, 1940s (postalheritage.wordpress.com)

postman with bicycle, 1940s (postalheritage.wordpress.com)

My Uncles Len and Ted started out as postmen in London, delivering the Royal Mail door to door on push bikes. Mum told me that when my dear cousin Lesley was born prematurely, Uncle Len raced back and forth on his bike between home and hospital delivering milk for his tiny baby girl. He went on to work at the Mornington Crescent Post Office while Uncle Ted went to work for the telephone and telegraph division of the Post Office (which, in 1969, became Post Office Telecommunications; in 1981, under Margaret Thatcher, was made independent of the Post Office as British Telecom; and, in 1984, privatized).

Hoddeson Post Office (photo by jelm6 on  omnilexica.com)

Hoddeson Post Office (photo by jelm6 on omnilexica.com)

In 1969, while my mother, my sister Sally, and I were living in Hertfordshire with my Uncle Ted while waiting for our U.S. immigration visas, Mum decided to apply for a position in the Post Office like her brothers before her. She was sent to London for six weeks of training, and then started as a  counter clerk at the Hoddesdon Post Office on the town’s high street. In those days the Post Office was the hub of the community. Everyone came in there for one reason or the other, and posting letters and parcels was only one of its functions. The elderly picked up their pensions there, mothers their family allowances and, at a time when most Britons didn’t have bank accounts, many maintained Post Office Savings accounts. As a result, Mum’s job was vital and varied, and she was soon familiar with the multigenerational cast of characters who came in on a regular basis.

Steve 2.0, Flickr

Having lived far from both sides of our extended family for most of our lives, we’ve always looked forward eagerly to the daily delivery of the mail. Nowadays, though, instead of my heart lifting and fluttering in anticipation as I approach the mailbox, it sinks with dull resignation in the knowledge of the slew of bills and junk mail that will have to be sorted, shredded, and recycled. Letters, on the other hand, I treasure and keep, every last one of them. But it is a rare treat nowadays to receive a hand-written letter by “snail mail.“

photo by Roger Hutchings/Corbis (guardian.co.uk)

photo by Roger Hutchings/Corbis
(guardian.co.uk)

It wasn’t always snail mail. In Victorian Britain there were six to twelve mail deliveries per day, so that two people could engage in several exchanges of letters in the course of a single day. In my childhood, there were still two deliveries a day in Greater London, so that a letter put in the morning post would reach its destination that same afternoon. Due to anticipated public opposition, the Royal Mail has not yet been privatized, but it has been restructured so that it could happen any day now.

When I worked as a feature writer for The Winchendon Courier in north-central Massachusetts, I learned that a hundred years earlier that sleepy, isolated town had been a thriving railway junction. As the New York-bound train came through every afternoon it would slow down and slide out an automated arm to receive the mail, which would be delivered in the City the following morning. This was amazing to me, since in the 1980s it could take a letter posted in Winchendon up to a week to reach New York City.

The process of defunding the U.S. Post Office has continued apace. Now the closing of small branch offices and sorting stations is looming, so that our mail would have to leave the state to be sorted and could no longer achieve next-day delivery to Boston. Though public protest is staving it off, the next service slated for the chopping block is Saturday delivery. The elimination of these services could be the death knell of the post office, leaving us with only private mail companies, and it seems to me that that is the very intent of the cuts.

minuscule mailbox outside Royalston, MA Post Office (nomadwillie on waymarking.com)

minuscule mailbox outside Royalston, MA Post Office
(nomadwillie on waymarking.com)

When we fail to support and sustain a noble public institution like the post office, we impoverish our civic society as a whole. I cannot imagine a society where such an institution did not exist, and I hope I never have to live in one.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. V gd writing Josna. I read the whole article &, like you, feel saddened that a lavender-scented letter, written in green ink, will never come through my front door.
    Evangeline

    • Thank you very much. And long live those lavender-scented letters! Your characters all correspond prolifically by post, so they are doing their part to keep the Post Office alive. J

  2. The high point of my day used to be my walk to the mail box, which often looked like #50 up there. There were long letters to family and friends, some of which I still have. Story rounds back and forth chapters. News and photos. Now, I’m only excited if I’ve ordered a death certificate or some other family history document. One cousin tries to keep the mail alive by sending cards on every occasion but she only signs her name, no note. I didn’t even send out Christmas greetings this year. I like the speed of email but it’s likely to just be a few sentences and that’s it.

    • Thank you for this, Kristin. I can imagine that walk to the mailbox, full of anticipation, wondering what the day’s post would bring. Death certificates might be exciting in terms of your family genealogy (and paradoxically, might bring ancestor to life for you), but it’s hard to match an extended, ongoing conversation with a dear friend or family member. And I agree–while I appreciate the spirit behind the desire to stay in touch, it’s disappointing to receive a card without a personal note in it. I did send out Christmas cards, but way fewer than in past years, and I wrote only v. few and v. short notes in them. (At the same time, I tend to get irritated by the long form letters that some people send with their Christmas cards. Don’t ask me why!)

  3. I was thrilled to hear that, for the time being at least, Saturday mail will go on!
    But I am just as guilty of switching to e-mail as much easier and faster.
    My PEO group still sends hand written notes to each other when we are sick or under the weather for any reason. Often we make special hand made cards as a group and send them to each other when someone has missed a meeting or is celebrating anything in their family. It is a lovely thing to receive a card or letter and I plan to continue to make the time to do that, but e-mail is so easy and convenient now that I am afraid that our Postal service
    may yet go away. I can’t imagine how biographies will ever be written in the future without letters available to guide and instruct the author.
    Another horrifying thing I learned recently was that children are not being taught cursive any more in public schools!

    Oh, dear!

  4. This is lovely Jo. Dad travelled by push bike and probably did his rounds on foot, dodging snappy dogs and at one particular house in Hampstead used to deliver letters to a lady’s bedroom, not for any other reason than she was an invalid. He would probably say they were good days – they definitely kept him fit. Lots of love and thank you. Xx

    • Dear Lesley, I have corrected the story (changing motorbikes to push bikes) and found a photo of a postman with his bicycle from the 1940s. Not dashing like Uncle Len, though! Love the story about his special deliveries in Hampstead. Oh, and the dogs! Nikhil’s high-school friend Kathy’s mother used to be a post-office nurse, and had to tend many dog bites. Hugs and thanks to you, xxx J

  5. I am new to blogging and have only been at it since April 1st. While I’ve much yet to learn, I find it remarkable how utterly charming and engaging most bloggers have been, both in their respective posts and their treatment of me personally.

    Chief among my best reasons to continue beyond this A to Z Challenge, is the delightful discovery of a blog like this. Your writing is crisp as an apple and a joy to devour. It’s so very nice to meet you, Jo, and I thank you kindly for your lovely comment on my “Quintessence” post today.

    Cheers.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Michael. Have you really only just begun blogging with the challenge? You write fluently and have a distinct voice. I’ve never done anything like this challenge before, and I too find the whole spirit of it very friendly and serious–in that people respond thoughtfully and really engage with what one has written. All the best, J

  6. Hi Josna… This post touched me… I believe that letter writing is an art and a great way to keep in touch.. No email , or tweets can come close..in fact, a few of us started writing letters again a few months back…. there are a lot of us who value the snail mail…

    Good luck with the challenge..

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Swapna. It’s good to know that you and your friends have taken up letter-writing again. I would hate that practice—that art, really—to die out, and I would guess that your letters have your artistic flair. Thanks for the good wishes on the Challenge —same to you.

  7. Isn’t it strange that in those “olden days” there could be so many deliveries a day. Even in my childhood the postie would come striding along (he would have been fit!) doing his morning round and then return in the afternoon….poor man, it was a difficult job in Brisbane’s 90+F heat at the time.

    Now with posties on motor bikes we’re lucky to get one delivery a day, and the mail between places takes longer….go figure! I reckon we have the best post office in Australia where we keep our mail box –they are so efficient that even at Xmas time they regard it as an offence it their queue is more than a few people long…they work like demons.

    Thanks for reminding us all of a service we tend to take for granted. They do say in Australia that while letters have diminished in numbers parcels have increased dramatically because of people’s online ordering.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment. Yes, it does seem odd that in some cases the old days saw better services. It reminds us that technological “progress” doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of life. Thanks too for reminding us that even if the internet has dealt a blow to letters, at least online shopping has increased the number of parcels. And I’m glad that Australia still supports an efficient Post Office.

  8. I concur! I love the PO. In 1999, we were living temporarily in a tiny town in far western Mass, almost in NY State, and the post office there had that community feel–a regular stop for many people every day. I wonder if it even exists anymore! Love the stories and the photos.

  9. […] The Post Office (U.K., 1940s, 1960s; U.S., 1980s, present) […]

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