The Dead Letter Office by Mrs. P. L. Collins
Of course, dear readers, all of you have heard of the Dead-letter Office
at Washington, and I suppose you have the same vague idea that I had
until I went there and learned better—that it is a place where letters
are sent when they fail to reach those for whom they are intended, and
are thence returned to the writers. Really, now, I believe this is what
most grown-up people think too; but in truth, it is such a wonderful
place that I am sure you will be surprised when I tell you of some of
the things you may find there, and I think when you come to Washington
it will be one of the first places you will wish to visit.
Probably you have never written a great many letters, and I do not doubt
that each one had its envelope neatly addressed by your father or
mother, while you stood by to see that it was well done. I hope, too,
that in due time your letters had the nice replies they deserved. You
would have been much disappointed if any of them had been "lost in the
mail," as people say, wouldn't you? You will not forget your stamp, I am
sure, after I have related the following incident:
There was once a little girl, only ten years old, who was spending six
months in the city of New York, just previous to sailing for Europe. Her
heart was filled with love for her darling grandpapa, whom she had left
in New Orleans, and she wrote to him twice every week. Her letters were
in the French language; at least, the one that I saw was, and it began
"Cher Grandpère cheri." She said, "I hope that you have received the
slippers I embroidered for you, and the fifteen dollars I sent in my
last letter to have them made." But, alas! the package containing the
slippers had reached the "cher grandpère cheri," while the letter and
money were missing. Then this old gentleman wrote to the Dead-letter
Office, and said that it was the only one of his granddaughter's letters
he had ever failed to receive; that it could not have been misdirected;
and his carrier had been on the same route for many years, so he knew
him to be honest; therefore the money must have been mysteriously
swallowed up in the D. L. O.
What was to be done? Do you imagine the Dead-letter Office shook in its
Not a bit of it. It turned to a big book, and found a number which stood
opposite the little girl's letter, and then straightway laid hands upon
the letter itself, and forwarded it to the indignant "grandpère."
Now why all this trouble and delay, and saying of naughty things to the
D. L. O., without which he might never have seen either his letter or
his money? Simply this: the dear child had dropped her letter into the
box without a stamp.
You will be surprised to learn that something over four millions of
letters are sent to the Dead-letter Office every year.
There are three things that render them liable to this: first, being
unclaimed by persons to whom they are addressed; second, when some
important part of the address is omitted, as James Smith, Maryland;
third, the want of postage. All sealed letters must have at least one
three-cent stamp, unless they are to be delivered from the same office
in which they are mailed, when they must have a one or a two cent stamp,
according to whether the office has carriers or not.
For the second cause mentioned above about sixty-five thousand letters
were sent to the Dead-letter Office during the past year; for the third,
three hundred thousand, and three thousand had no address whatever.
When these letters reach the Dead-letter Office, they are divided into
two general classes, viz., Domestic and Foreign, the latter being
returned unopened to the countries from which they started.
The domestic letters, after being opened, are classed according to their
contents. Those containing money are called "Money Letters;" those with
drafts, money-orders, deeds, notes, etc., "Minor Letters;" and such as
inclose receipts, photographs, etc., "Sub-Minors." Letters which contain
anything, even a postage-stamp, are recorded, and those with money or
drafts are sent to the postmasters where the letters were first mailed,
for them to find the owners, and get a receipt. From $35,000 to $50,000
come into the office in this way during the year; but a large proportion
is restored to the senders, and the remainder is deposited in the United
States Treasury to the credit of the Post-office Department.
When letters contain nothing of value, if possible they are returned to
the writers. There are clerks so expert in reading all kinds of writing
that they can discern a plain address where ordinary eyes could not
trace a word. For instance, you could not make much of this:
A dead-letter clerk at once translates it:
Mr. Hensson King,
And such spelling! Would you ever imagine that Galveston could be
tortured into "Calresdon," Connecticut into "Kanedikait," and Territory
Recently the Postmaster-General has found it necessary to issue very
strict orders about plain addresses, and a great many people have tried
to be witty at his expense. I copied this address from a postal card:
Ashland County, State of Ohio;
Age 29; Occupation, Lawyer;
Longitude West from Troy 2°;
For President 1880, U. S. Grant!
About once in two years there is a sale of the packages which are
detained in the office for the same reason that letters are. All the
small articles are placed in envelopes, on which are written brief
descriptions of their contents. Any one is allowed the privilege of
examining them before purchasing. There are thousands of these packages,
containing almost everything you can think of. I glanced over an old
catalogue, and selected at random half a dozen things that will give you
an idea of the endless variety: Florida beans, surgical instruments,
cat-skin, boy's jacket, map of the Holy Land, two packages of corn
starch, and a diamond ring—in truth, as the chief of the D. L. O. says
in his report, "everything from a small bottle of choice perfumery to a
large box of Limburger cheese."
But there were two things that nobody would ever buy, so this great
institution was obliged to keep them. One was a horrid, grinning,
skeleton head, that had been sent to Dr. Gross, the eminent Philadelphia
surgeon; but the box being nailed so that the postmaster could not
examine its contents without breaking it, he was obliged to charge
letter rates of postage, which the doctor refused to pay; consequently
it found a proper resting-place in the house appropriated specially to
Occupying the same shelf are several glass jars containing serpents of
various sizes preserved in alcohol. These snakes were received at the D. L. O.
in two large tin cans, the ends of which were perforated to admit
air. They were addressed to a professor in Germany. It could not be
ascertained at what office they had been mailed. There were seventeen in
all, but some of the smaller ones were dead.
System, punctuality, industry, belong to the Dead-letter Office. It
seems to embrace every other branch of business, and, as I have shown
you, even to know how to treat such unwelcome guests as a nest of live