Solving Mail Mysteries
Women making a mark in the Postal Service
When we put something in the mail, we expect it to be delivered. Since the founding of the United States, the mail that went unclaimed at local post offices, bore insufficient postage, or lost momentum due to incomplete, illegible, or missing addresses was forwarded to the specialists in “dead letters” at the Post Office Department. The Dead Letter Office clerks used analytical reasoning, languages, and geography to “blind read,” or deduce, the correct addresses and send the mail on its way.
The Dead Letter Office hired its first women in 1862. Men were fighting in the Civil War, and the Post Office Department was flooded with mail. Three years later, the Dead Letter Office employed thirty-eight “ladies,” who outnumbered their seven male counterparts. But the women each earned only $600 annually—$300 less than their male coworkers. Several female employees signed a petition requesting a raise; their pay increase was granted in a subsequent congressional appropriation, along with a title change to “clerks.” Still, the women’s salaries remained lower than the men’s, and their offices and entrances were separate. Although both offices were visible to tourists visiting the nation’s capital and were written about in the popular press, the conspicuous presence of these white, middle-class women working in a federal agency challenged nineteenth-century norms.
This “Blind Reading” scrapbook preserves a proud selection of the clerks’ accomplishments in just a two-year period. Each of the twenty-one carefully mounted envelopes bears the following marking: “Deficiency in Address Supplied at Dead Letter Office.” Like answers to a puzzle, the solutions are written on the backs of the pages, denoting successful delivery. The elegant handwriting and construction of this unsigned volume are identical to those in an album in the United States Postal Service’s collection attributed to Clara M. Richter (ca. 1845–99). Shortly after the Civil War, the unmarried German immigrant joined the staff at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the post office. During her thirty-plus years of public service, Richter became chief of the Dead Letter Office’s foreign mail, reviving letters from the dead and helping make international communications more reliable.
—Lynn Heidelbaugh, Curator of Postal Operations, National Postal Museum
Dead Letter Office Blind Reading album
- Associated Organization
- Post Office Department
- This red, leather-bound scrapbook titled “Blind Reading” was assembled after 1883. It contains twenty-one clippings from the front of envelopes postmarked between 1883 and 1884. The envelopes inside bear markings of “illegibly addressed,” “misdirected,” “returned for better direction,” “no such office in state named,” “no post office named,” “no state named,” “no such street . . .,” and “unclaimed.” With their intended destinations practically obscured, postal clerks directed letters such as these to the Dead Letter Office, where specially trained clerks carefully worked to decipher the nearly illegible handwriting, the scant information, and the simply incorrect or missing addresses. Such challenging addresses were termed 'blind readings'.
- Each envelope in the scrapbook has the additional mark, “Deficiency in address supplied at Dead Letter Office” that proves these mysteries had all been solved. When clerks cracked a particularly challenging mail mystery, they forwarded the mail along with a letter requesting that the envelope be returned for the Dead Letter office’s collection. With the envelope pasted into the album, the correctly decoded address was written on the reverse page, like the answers to a trivia game.
- The construction of this unsigned album is identical to one in the United States Postal Service’s collection attributed to Clara M. Richter (c.1845-c.1899). Richter worked as a Dead Letter Office clerk for over thirty years, eventually served as chief of the Office’s foreign mail. In this role she was one of the senior female employees in the office alongside women such as Mrs. Patti Lyle Collins (1845-1913), who wrote articles about the Office's unique duties and gained notoriety for her postal work at the turn of the twentieth century. It is unknown if this volume belonged to or was created by Miss Richter.
- Cushing, Marshall Henry. Story of Our Post Office. Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co., 1893.
- Heidelbaugh, Lynn. “Solving Mail Mysteries,” Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, Eds. Victoria Pope and Christine Schrum, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2019. Page 70.
- https://postalmuseum.si.edu/remembering-the-dead. Accessed January 28, 2021.
- United States of America
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- National Postal Museum Collection
- Data Source
- National Postal Museum
- Object number
- Archival Material
- paper; leather; gilt; adhesive; cotton thread
- Height x Width x Depth: 4 1/2 × 7 3/4 × 3/4 in. (11.43 × 19.69 × 1.91 cm)
- Metadata Usage
- Record ID