Washington DC - The Post Office
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
THE Post-Office Department occupies a marble building situated on the square between Seventh and Eighth, and E and F streets northwest. The building is of the delicate Corinthian order, and is a notable example of architectural grace and beauty. Its facades are ornamented with monolithic columns and pilasters, with beautiful capitals, and the architrave, frieze, and cornice are designed in pure classic style. It is three hundred feet from north to south, and two hundred and four feet from east to west. It has two stories resting upon a rustic basement, with deep, spacious vaults below. That portion on E Street was erected of New York marble in 1839, from designs by Robert Mills. In 1855 the building was extended over the entire square, the extensions being designed by Thomas U. Walter, and constructed of Maryland marble. The cost of construction was nearly two million dollars. The building contains eighty-five apartments excellently arranged for the postal business, and most of them are elegantly decorated and furnished.
By the Constitution of the United States, Congress was given the right " to establish post-offices and post-roads." The office of Post-master-General was created in 1789, and the General Post-Office was established in 1794. On the 2d of March, 1799, Congress passed an act to establish the General Post-Office in Washington. The department has had a marvelous growth. Fifty years ago there were 10,693 post-offices throughout the country, and the revenue from them was only $2,823,749. At present there are 47,863 post-offices, and the yearly revenue of the department is over $45,000,000. To carry on the postal service requires the assistance of 67,000 persons.
The site of the Post-Office Building was originally 0ccupied in the early days of Washington by a large brick structure erected for a hotel by a sanguine speculator, who believed that the new capital would rapidly become a great city. Before the hotel was finished his funds gave out, and the building was offered as a prize in a lottery, and drawn by two orphan children to whom the lucky ticket had been presented by a friend. They were without means to finish it, and it was suffered to remain in an unfinished state for nearly ten years. Here the first play ever given in the city was performed by a troupe of strolling players, some of whom afterward achieved distinction on the American stage. It was used now and then as a theatre until 1810, when the government purchased and completed it, using it for the post-office, and also to store the first collections of patent models ever made. When the British invaders burned the public buildings in 1814, this one was spared through the efforts of Dr. William Thorn-ton, then in charge of the patent business. He appealed to the soldiers sent to destroy it, who were his countrymen, and succeeded in persuading them to stay the work of destruction until the next day. Then the troops had left the city, and this building was the only public one to which the incendiary torch had not been applied. Congress held one session in it after the burning of the Capitol, and the post-office occupied the first story until Dec. 15, 1836, when a fire completely destroyed it. In the fire were consumed the collections of the patent office, stored in the second story, which numbered over four thousand models, the accumulation of nearly half a century. A private building was then rented for the post-office, and was used until the present building was erected.
The Postmaster-General, who has the supervision of the affairs of the Post-Office Department, is a member of the Cabinet, and receives $8,000 per year. There are three assistant postmasters-general, appointed by the President, who receive $4,000 each. The Postmaster-General has a chief clerk at $2,200, a stenographer at $1,800, an appointment clerk at $1,800, a law clerk at $2,500, and a dozen or so other employes for the special business of his office. He appoints all postmasters for offices to which a salary of not more than $1,000 is attached. The other postmasters come within the "Presidential classes," and are appointed by the President. They number 2,175, with total salaries of $3,750,000. The office of the Postmaster-General is a richly furnished apartment ; near it are the offices of the assistant postmasters-general— large, elegant apartments.
The bureau of the first assistant postmaster-general has five divisions, viz.: the appointment division, the bond division, the salary and allowance division, the free delivery division, and the blank agency division. The bureau acts upon the establishment of new post-offices, and the appointment of postmasters, postal clerks, agents, and others ; attends to the bonds required, has the supervision of the free delivery system, adjusts the salaries of postmasters, considers allowances for the various expenditures of post-offices, and furnishes the greater part of what are called department supplies." A large amount of business is transacted in the different divisions, and seventy-five officials and clerks are employed. In regard to the free delivery system it may be said that it is now in use in one hundred and fifty-four cities, and requires the services of 3,680 letter-carriers, whose yearly salaries amount to more than $3,000,000. The postmasters of the country are annually paid over $12,000,000, and postal clerks, $4,900,000.
Few persons are aware of the magnitude of the postal business, particularly that portion of it relating to the transportation of the mails. The transportation service is in charge of the second assistant postmaster-general, and the three divisions of his bureau are known as the contract division—familiarly called the " contract office,"— the inspection division, and the mail equipment division. To transact the business of this bureau requires one hundred employes.
The " star service," or the " star routes " as they are usually called, is that portion of the mail transportation not covered by railroads and steamboats. In the endeavor of the Post-Office Department to furnish all communities with mail facilities, use is made of private conveyances in sections of the country, particularly in the far West, where there are no railroads or steamboats. The mails are carried over these special or star routes by contractors who make bids for the service, and furnish the horses and wagons and the persons required. These routes number very nearly 8,000, and are mostly in the western and southwestern states and the territories. Their yearly cost is upwards of five million dollars, and their aggregate length is 226,865 miles.
By these routes mails are carried to the mining camps, to the interior villages, and to communities located away from the great highways of travel. The service is very useful and important, and has largely aided in the settlement of the western country.
The contract office attends to all the mail lettings. The country is divided into four postal sections, and bids are received and con-tracts made for carrying the mails in one section every year. As many as 100,000 bids will be received in some years. The department has no discretion in the matter of mail lettings, as the law directs that the routes shall be awarded in all cases to the lowest bidders, if their bids are in proper form. Contracts for mail transportation, after the acceptance of bids, must be filed in the department within a certain time. If an accepted bidder fails to file his contract by the time specified, he becomes a failing bidder," and the route is awarded to the next lowest bidder.
On the day fixed for closing the bids the Postmaster-General as-signs three officials of the department to open and stamp all those received. In the basement story of the post-office is a massive vault in which all the bids are kept, and near at hand is a printing-press. The three officials, aided by a force of clerks, first assort the bids by states ; then the bids are opened and passed through the press, and have imprinted on them the special seal of the department, which shows the date they were opened. When all the bids have been opened and stamped they are taken to the room of the chief clerk of the contract office, where they are examined by clerks detailed for the purpose, to see if they are proper in form. The amount is then indorsed on the back of each bid, and then the bids are " listed" or classified according to the routes, after which they are recorded in route-books specially prepared.
After all this tedious and laborious work is done, the chief clerk goes over the route-books and designates the lowest bidder for each route. An acceptance is then prepared by the Postmaster-General and sent to each lowest bidder, who executes a contract according to the terms of the bid. The contracts are made in duplicate, and when received, one is retained by the Postmaster-General, and the other is sent to the Sixth Auditor of the Treasury, who has charge of the disbursements of the Post-Office Department.
The railroad mail routes number nearly 1,400, and the yearly expenditure for the transportation of mails over them is $13,000,00's.
There are more than one hundred steamboat routes, which cost $625,-000. The mail messenger service on the railroads is performed -at a cost of $800,000, and the railroad postal clerks are paid $3,700,000. At present the railroad mail service is 110,208 miles in length.
The third assistant postmaster-general has charge of the following divisions : The division of finance, the division of postage-stamps and stamped envelopes, the division of registered letters, and the division of dead letters. It is the duty of this official to pay the mail contractors, to collect the postal revenues, to issue postage-stamps, stamped envelopes, and postal cards to the post-offices, and to attend to the business connected with registered letters and dead letters.
The Dead-Letter Office occupies a spacious apartment in the F Street portion of the department building, and can be inspected by visitors. The apartment has a wide gallery, and is well lighted by a glass roof and high, broad windows. The office has a chief with a salary of $2,250, and a force of one hundred male and female clerks.
About 15,000 dead letters are received every day from the post-offices of the country, and a great quantity of other mail-matter. All the " dead mail" is first examined by the chief clerk and his assist-ants, in order to ascertain if there is anything in it which has been improperly sent to the office. This is a very needful practice, as every day a number of letters are discovered properly addressed and stamped, and which should have been delivered. By carelessness on the part of postmasters and postal clerks, a letter plainly addressed to a place, say in Pennsylvania, will be sent to a place, say in Texas. The postmaster there, instead of forwarding it to the place to which it is addressed, will retain it the customary time, and then send it to the dead-letter office. These letters are taken out of the dead mail and forwarded by the department to the post-offices to which they should have gone in the first place, accompanied by an official order to the postmasters that they shall request the parties claiming the letters to allow the envelopes to be returned to Washington. The envelopes thus obtained are put on record, and a reprimand is sent to the postal officials through whose carelessness the mistakes occurred. Upon an average, four thousand of these " careless letters " are discovered every year.
When the dead letters have been examined by the chief clerk and his assistants they are given into the hands of men sitting at long tables, who deftly cut open each envelope with a sharp, long-bladed knife, and examine the enclosure to ascertain if it contains any valuables. If anything is found the finder makes a detailed record of it in a small book lying at his hand, and the letter is put aside. Those letters which contain nothing of value are passed over to a force of women in the gallery, who search them to ascertain if they bear an address by which they can be returned to the writers. If one is found the department sends the letter back to the writer. The others are consigned to the waste matter, which is taken at certain intervals to West Washington, to a government structure, cut up, and thoroughly reduced to pulp.
If a letter or parcel with anything of value contains an address it is returned at once, but if there is no address the property is retained for six months, and then is disposed of at auction, at what are termed " sales of unclaimed and undeliverable mail-matter." A careful record is made of the sales, and the amount received for any article can be recovered upon application any time within four years.
A peculiarity of the dead-letter office is, that the letters are all opened by elderly men, quite a number of whom are in the " sere and yellow leaf" time of existence, with hair and beards fully frosted by many winters. The parcels are all opened by elderly women. It is only for the other work that young persons are employed. The reason for this, it is said, comes from a belief that men and women of mature age will be more conscientious in regard to valuables found in the letters and parcels—that is, will not secrete anything they find. It would be quite an easy matter for a person opening a letter or parcel which contained a bank-note, or something else of value, to slyly pocket it, and in a majority of the cases it would be difficult, if not impossible, to detect the theft.
Great quantities of money are found. In one recent year 20,000 letters were opened that contained $45,000 in bank-notes. The articles found are of most every sort, and quite often they are of considerable value. Checks, drafts, and money-orders yearly discovered represent a value of more than two million dollars. Between thirty and forty thousand photographs come into the office every year; and, strangest of all, nearly ten thousand letters annually appear in the dead mail which have no address upon their envelopes.
The Money-Order Office is located in a high brick building adjacent to the Post-Office. It is in charge of a superintendent who has a salary of $3,500, and employs numerous clerks. Here the money-orders that have been paid are received from all the money-order offices in the United States, and from foreign countries. They are classified, and then the accounts of postmasters in reference to the money-order business are verified and audited. As the business is very extensive and complicated, the accounts require the greatest of care in their settlement. Over nine millions of American and foreign money-orders are issued in a year, representing a value of $125,000,000.
No department of the government is better managed than that of the post-office. The details of its immense business are thoroughly attended to, its expenditures are usually very judicious, and its working system is constantly being improved to meet the public requirement.