The mail has long been a topic of fascination in American cultural history. We all remember the stories from history class about Ben Franklin and his idea of the Postal Service, and the tales of the Pony Express, galloping from one coast all across the country to the other to deliver important documents, revised maps of the territories and of course, love letters.
How many songs and movies refer to the mail, Mr. Postman or delivering the letters? Lots! Did you, or someone you know have a stamp collection? Did you ever play Post Office? Do you eagerly await the next arrival in the mail of the newest catalogue from your favorite retailer?
It seems like the mail permeates such a great portion of our lives, and even though we have seen the advent of the electronic process of delivery known as e-mail, the post office, snail mail and all its relations by extension play an enormous role in our personal and business lives.
Rhode Island, the smallest state, has a particularly large distinction as far as the mail is concerned. It is the location of the world’s First Automated Post Office, which opened on October 20, 1960.
For our family in particular, the Post Office holds great sentimental value. My father was Personnel Director at the Main Post Office in Providence Rhode Island until his retirement. One of the highlights of his career was the opening of the new Automated Main Post Office. Also known as the “Turnkey” Post Office, mail was sorted and dispatched quickly from this central location throughout the state.
Prior to the opening of the Turnkey facility, my father actually worked at the downtown location for many years. It was there, starting as a mail sorter and handler, that he endured the teasing of his colleagues when my mother, his then-girlfriend, would stop by before she began her nurse’s shift at Rhode Island Hospital.
He worked there until the Army sent him to help run the Postal Service in Algeria during World War II. (Of course, he married my mother before he went overseas.) And upon his return from the war in 1945 he went back to work at the downtown location.
In fact, their story was the inspiration for my Desert Breeze Book, “Spotlight on Love.”
By the 1950’s, so many things were changing in the United States, and the dramatic increase in the amount of mail being sent was one of them. The hand-stamping and hand-sorting methods previously used were too time-consuming for the volume of mail being handled. In 1958, The Postmaster General gave the go-ahead for construction of an Automated Post Office, located in Providence. It would become the prototype for turnkey automated postal facilities throughout the country.
The Post Office was designed with the most up-to-date electronic and mechanical systems available in the late ’50s-early 60s. The ultimate objective was to move more than one-million pieces of mail automatically per day with unprecedented speed and efficiency.
A Control Tower reaching 25 feet in height, similar to a forest ranger’s outlook tower, served as the central command post of what my father referred to as “the floor”. This was the main area with conveyor belts carrying the mail throughout its journey into and out of the new building. On the way, the mail would be sorted, stamped and routed via the building’s culling, canceling and sorting machines.
It is a vivid memory, recalling my very first visit to “the floor”. The cavernous space was gleaming with fluorescent light, no daylight, and the ceilings stretched up as high as my eyes could see. Most memorable, though, was the commotion from the clackety-clacking conveyor belts, racing frantically against time.
What a treat, on subsequent visits after touring “the floor,” to take the elevator up three floors and visit my father’s office. I’d run across the carpet and perch on the leather sofa in front of the floor-to-ceiling vertical blinds.
“Ready?” my father would ask.
“Now!” I’d shriek, and he’d comply, pulling the string to open the blinds and reveal a wall of windows overlooking “the floor”.
As far as the eye could see, and three stories down, I would see a Santa’s workshop of mail mania. But this view was soundless, unlike the ruckus on “the floor”.
The Post Office was really a social center. April 15th was a key date for the Post Office, with tax filers rushing into the lobby with their last-minute tax returns. The Postmaster at the time would make the lobby a party floor, with ice cream, bands and even the Philharmonic playing music to file by until midnight for the customers. This lasted up until last year, when the Internet cut back on the numbers of people filing paper returns.
So many big memories from Little Rhody and our Automated Post Office on Corliss Street! Remember that date, October 20, 1960? The day of the Grand Opening? With new crews, government dignitaries and civic leaders? It was also, by some grandly-unplanned but incredibly romantic ‘correspondence’, my parents 18th wedding anniversary.
And that, as they say, is a story that is “sealed with a kiss”! Do you have a special memory about the mail?