A Zip Through History

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The urban carrier, the “walking post office,” with thirty-five pounds of mail slung from his shoulders or, increasingly now, stacked in a special cart, and a wary eye for unfriendly dogs, also shares with his patrons all the varieties of human circumstance. Postmen have delivered babies along with the mail, saved little girls from burning buildings, applied artificial respiration, and dived into icy waters to save the drowning; and on his own off-the-clock time the postman, like other good citizens, collects for muscular dystrophy or the March of Dimes. Other nonpostal functions of the department that contribute to the general welfare are of a more official nature. The postal service assists with taking the census, military recruiting, and the registration of enemy aliens in time of war. The postal inspectors ferret out frauds and swindles perpetrated through the mails. The service promotes U.S. Savings Bond sales, distributes civil-service information, and helps the FBI catch suspected criminals.

The post office has also had a hand in straightening out conflicts, obscurities, or whimsies in American place names and officially promulgated new ones until President Harrison by executive order in 1890 established the Board on Geographic Names. A local postmaster-cum-storekeeper, struggling to find a name, saw a catchy word on a can of sardines, and thus Lamoine, Washington, entered the Postal Guide . Sometimes when local opinion reached an impasse, the name problem was bucked up to Washington, where a clerk picked out something short and snappy, easy to spell and pronounce. One clerk, for example, sought inspiration in the given names of the children and babies in his immediate neighborhood, which may explain why there are five post offices named Eva, four for May, three Olas and Oras, and four Fays, Onas, and Idas plus, for good measure, an Ida Grove.

In the present century powerful craft unions put pressure on Congress for higher wages and other benefits and repeatedly produced results. Indeed, a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers has called Albert S. Burleson, Woodrow Wilson’s postmaster general, the father of the postal unions, because it was largely in reaction to his tough stance that the letter carriers affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Postal employees are all organized now. Some of the unions have lodge and fraternal characteristics that are even older than unionism. The state and national conventions, the ritualistic installation of officers, the amenities connected with the dais and podium, the presence of the ladies’ auxiliaries en tenue de soirée —all add up to a complete and satisfying social life that is lived within the great postal family.

When the rural letter-carriers gathered for their national convention in 1972, they found that everything was up-todate in Kansas City, which offered the carriers and their families, the announcement of the convention said, “a blend of culture and sophistication liberally spiked with Old West history.” The auxiliaries do a good deal more than install officers at lovely candlelight ceremonies. At home and especially when in convention assembled, the wives come to the aid of their spouses by writing cautionary letters that say “Go Go” or “No No” on bills before their elected representatives in Congress; and their great influence in postal lobbying is widely acknowledged. And so at the 1972 convention, along with Gayle Booth of the juniors singing “Make This World a Better Place” and a concert by the junior band, which performed creditably with only four practice sessions, and along with the awarding of retirement pins and the gaiety of the constant going and coming, the carriers kept their eyes on the ball. That is to say, they watched closely the bills reported out of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the variations in the Consumer Price Index. The letter carriers are known for their long memory, and they have their own pantheon of heroes. Annually, their association holds a memorial service in New York honoring the memory of Samuel Sullivan “Sunset” Cox, the Ohio congressman who introduced a landmark bill in Congress in 1877 calling for postal vacations, an eight-hour day, and a uniform rate of pay for letter carriers. A statue to Cox erected by the postmen still stands in Tompkins Square Park in New York City.