Sorting Mail in a Railway Post Office Car

Before railway transportation was introduced, the mails were carried on horseback, by stagecoach, by sulky, by canal packet and by steamboat.

Mail was slow, schedules were uncertain, and in many out-of-the-way places deliveries were sometimes as much as three weeks or a month apart. Postage rates were high.

Railway transportation greatly speeded up the movement of mails, increased the dependability and frequency of deliveries and reduced postage rates.

The first known instance of mails being transported by train was behind the locomotive "West Point" at Charleston, S. C., in November, 1831. By 1838, when Congress declared all railroads to be post routes, mail was being carried on 1,500 miles of railroad in this country. From that time forward, the route mileage and the volume of mail carried by rail increased rapidly.

The vast expansion of the Post Office Department since the advent of railroads is shown by the fact that total government postal receipts increased from $2,000,000 in 1830 to $767,000,000 in 1940.

How railroads have speeded up the movement of mails is shown by the following illustrations: in 1826 the fastest mail service between Boston and Washington, D. C., by stagecoach was about 8 days, or 192 hours. Today mail is regularly transported by rail between Boston and Washington in 9 hours. The fastest transit of mail between St. Louis and San Francisco by Concord coaches following the passage by Congress of the overland mail bill in 1857 was 25 days. Today railroads carry mail between St. Louis and San Francisco in slightly more than 2 days. Mail is carried by rail across the continent between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles in about 3 days.

The picture shows a typical scene in one of the numerous railway post office cars which speed daily over the railroads of the United States.

After a letter or parcel is canceled at the local post office, it is placed in a mail pouch with other mail. The pouch is sealed, labeled for a certain train and taken to the railway station by a mail messenger or some other authorized person, who delivers it to one of the railway mail clerks on the train. If the train does not stop at that station, the pouch is attached to a mail crane and put aboard in the manner described in the next chapter. Once inside the car, the seal is broken and the contents of the pouch are placed on a large sorting table. Around the table numerous open pouches are held in place by racks. Each pouch is labeled for a certain post office, distributing station or connecting train. On the walls of the car are large cases for over-sized mail and small cases with pigeon holes for first-class mail.

While the train is speeding along, the mail clerks are busy sorting mail, making up pouches and performing other duties to assure the prompt and proper handling of the mails. Pouches are received and put off at nearly every station where there is a post office. Letters and postal cards are sorted and tied into bundles, each bundle bearing a slip showing the destination, the railway post office's stamp and the clerk's name. Packages and newspapers are placed in pouches, each of which is labeled for a particular post office or connecting train.

Railway mail clerks develop remarkable speed and skill in the sorting and handling of mail. They know hundreds of railway mail routes. They memorize thousands of post offices and train connections, so it is not necessary for them to keep looking up such information in books or bulletins. Thus their memory helps them to do more work than would otherwise be possible.

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