A Zip Through History


Clara Boule of Lewiston, Montana, recently heard from her mother. This is less than startling, since her mother, Mrs. Elmer Lazure, lives at Belt, only eighty miles from Lewiston. But—the letter was postmarked November 17, 1969

Friends of Mrs. Edith Knudsen thought she was out of her mind when a group of young adults received vacation post-cards from her mailed from West Palm Beach and conveying greetings suitable for six-year-olds. The ex-planation: the addressees were six-year-olds when the cards were mailed.

In Washington, Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey, whose office is in the old Senate office building, reported that a letter mailed to him from the new Senate office building took three weeks to reach him. The two buildings are across the street trom each other.

A postal patron in Pittsburg, California, irate when a letter he was expecting failed to arrive, took action in the best vigilante tradition. He shot the postal clerk.

Little horror stories like those just cited are regularly put on the teletype by the great press associations and are read with a compulsive fascination by a public that apparently has a well-developed taste for self-flagellation and is convinced that they manage these matters better in England, in France, or, as one indignant reader of the New York Times wrote, in Mongolia. According to the calculus of the pessimists the operations of the Post Office Department (since 1970 an independent public corporation and renamed the United States Postal Service) are absolutely determined by Murphy’s Law. This is a rule of thumb which postulates that everything takes longer than you think and that if anything can go wrong it will.

On the happier side the postal service is popularly credited with a dazzling performance in delivering nixies. Nixies? A nixie is post-office slang of unknown origin for undeliverable mail. Nixies include letters torn by postal machinery, pouch mail scorched or charred in an air-mail crash or soaked by fire hoses. Children write nixies. So do mental patients, the semiliterate, and ingenious jokers who deliberately indite obscure addresses to put the nixie clerks on their mettle. Letters addressed to “My Teacher” have been delivered. A letter with only the superscription “Pastor Ihno Janssen,” mailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, was correctly delivered to the Lutheran minister in San Francisco. An envelope marked “Cookie, Ask Smitty” reached its destination. (The solution: a letter carrier called Smitty took the missive to a tavern owner known as Cookie.) An example beyond the call of duty occurred when a letter addressed “ S.O.B. , Washington” was promptly carried to the late Drew Pearson, the controversial newspaper columnist. Any nosegay of nixies would have to include a remarkable example of the genre in the shape of a 1963 letter addressed to the purchasing agent of Cowford, Florida, a place name that does not exist. Cowford became Jacksonville in 1822. Nevertheless the letter was delivered. More recently a group of letters was mailed from Canada, Jamaica, and various points in the United States addressed to individuals in Waterbug City, U.S.A. Twenty-six out of thirty-five were correctly delivered—to recipients in Washington, D.C. But perhaps in our particular time frame this was an easy one.

Slow deliveries and miraculous deliveries—the people’s emotional reactions to both, the mingling of affection with the pleasure of abusing the post office, represent the complex love-hate relationship of the American citizen with his postal establishment. Both attitudes demonstrate, each in its different way, the tremendous importance attached to this institution, which touches more people, more often, in a more personal way, than any other agency of the federal government. Thoreau was able to say that he could easily do without the post office, but he carried few of his admirers with him on this point. Though citizen-patrons no longer write “Haste, post, Haste” on the covers of their missives, as our colonial forefathers did, the same eager psychology remains. People are acutely sensitive to any delays in delivering the mail and take an apoplectic view of them. The public’s friendly feeling toward the letter carrier is natural, for he handles humanity’s most intimate hopes and fears, its news and its business, and he is the visible embodiment of the national government, seen and appreciated every day. Perhaps we also sense, when we stop to think about it, the constitutional significance of the postal service, for the power to establish post offices and post roads was carefully written into the Constitution itself (Article I, Section 8).


The delivery of mail has been a public function since the rulers of antiquity found that communication was necessary to the control of distant territories. As a guardian of the security of the state, then, the postal service was a police measure. This concept can be traced back at least to the fifth century B.C. , when, during the Persian Wars, Xerxes used swift couriers to send back to Persia the news of his invasion of Greece. Herodotus has the story: