One of the more poignant objects recovered from the wreckage of American warships sunk at Pearl Harbor eighty-one years ago this month is a registered postal service hand-stamp off USS Oklahoma, bearing the date December 6, 1941, which was a Saturday. The ship’s postal clerks did not work on Sunday, when those infamous events occurred that forever kept them from advancing the date to Monday.
During World War II, soldiers, sailors, and airmen kept in touch with loved ones almost exclusively via ink-on-paper communication. Everyone craved a letter from home or “over there.” Mail mattered then, as it had from the beginnings of the republic through the 1970s, more or less, when the falling price of long-distance phone calls and the fax machine devastated written correspondence. “Mail call,” whether in the military or at summer camp or away at school, was a high point of the day and sticks in millions of memories. In the southern hamlet where I live, the local post office is a mile up the road and gets a visit from me every day or two. I check the box and sometimes transact business and make conversation with one of the two clerks, both friends and neighbors. These days, much of what is in the box is either advertising or transaction mail of the you-owe-us variety, but not all of it. I also find there each month my copy of The New Criterion and the day’s—or as often, yesterday’s—Wall Street Journal. Sometimes, even, there is a letter.
To write a letter or a postcard meant, relatively speaking, going slow. This was particularly so if one wrote by hand, but true too with a typewriter or word processor and printer. People have always liked to complain about the speed of the mail, but today the once-noble medium has been denigrated to the point of being deemed “snail mail.” Contracts to carry the mail once were prestigious and coveted things and underwrote our evolving national transportation system. The concept of a “post road” dates to colonial times. The Old Boston Post Road, which began as a forest trail in 1673 and eventually became part of US Route 1, is a common reference still in the vernacular of southern New England. Waterways, filling up with mail-carrying canal boats and paddlewheel steamers, were declared post roads in 1823. The Pony Express, though it operated only for eighteen months in 1860 and 1861, quickly entered the mythology of the Old West.
Railroads carried the mail (soon an idiom meaning “to get a job done”) for a century until 1967. In the 1920s America’s mail moved on ten thousand trains a day. Scheduled airmail, at first with a tiny lift capacity, began in 1918. In an age when virtually all news came by mail, printers—whose broadsheets carried names like “Packet,” “Courier,” and “Post,” denoting how the news actually arrived—often vied for the postmaster’s job, knowing they would get their news out first. The Post Office Act of 1792 allowed for editors to exchange papers without charge so that each could print the others’ news. By the 1820s, newspapers came to enjoy privileged postage rates on the revolutionary conviction that knowledge is a power not to be taxed. The post office was the largest employer in the land. Take many an American from the first half of the twentieth century and you will find an ancestor who, like the many who farmed or worked for the railroad, helped move the mail. My grandfather (d. 1954) did as a Star Route carrier charged to transport the mail with “celerity, certainty and security” in his corner of northwestern North Dakota in the 1920s. Life was hard then and there, and a little postal “subsidy” helped feed the family.
Letters were always the prize, “Don’t forget to write!” and “I got a letter!” the two great exclamations of an epistolary age. The Harvard president Charles W. Eliot poetized the wondrous purposes of the letter as the “Messenger of sympathy and love/ Servant of parted friends/ Consoler of the lonely/ Bond of the scattered family/ Enlarger of the common life.” John Donne, the better poet, said it in just eleven words of prose: “More than kisses, letters mingle souls, for thus friends absent speak.” When people wanted to converse and were out of earshot, they created a letter record. In America, unlike many other lands, you wrote with certainty that your communication remained private. Here, the mail was sacred. To prove it, each of us even today likely as not has that little stash, at the back of a drawer, of our own ink-on-paper artifacts still in the envelopes, bearing stamps of low denomination, bound with string or faded ribbon, and containing, from parent or child, old friend or first love, communication of news long forgotten, evidence of hopes kindled, passions cooled, connections made and missed.
December brings a burst of mail. Sometimes there’s even the surprise of a letter or two, if only, as is most likely, in the guise of notes enclosed with Christmas cards. We are grateful for small things. The postmarks and stamps will disappoint, the former digitized to the point of abstraction and typically faded, the latter banal in their regulated diversity—unless, that is, your sender has taken care to ferret out the year’s Christmas commemorative. Even this will not be quite what it ought. For many years now, stamps have ceased to be engraved and have lost much of their beauty. Christmas packages will likely come right to your doorstep courtesy a private courier service, having avoided the post office altogether, which must compete as it never did back when Parcel Post was all there was. And there always used to be invitations, more abundant when formal in-home holiday entertaining was still common. Some very good holiday parties are still held, and office ones may even, they say, be making a comeback. Seldom though does their announcement come in the mail.
From the perspective of the mail, December 1941, when America was girding for global war, and December 2022, when we toss and turn over culture wars and would rather not think about hot wars being fought or still to come, are not that different. We are social creatures, and a full box is better than an empty one. A lot of the boys on USS Oklahoma would never send or receive another letter or Christmas card again. We still can. And we can still, for the asking, have our Christmas cards and letters hand-canceled with an old-fashioned stamp little different from the one salvaged from the wreck of the old battleship. It doesn’t have to be registered mail either; anything first class qualifies for the privilege. It’s a nice touch to see the name of your city or town and the date your mail entered the stream, in black ink legible to the human eye: time and place together. Just ask your trusty postal clerk, who may be busy and not want to, but who will honor your request. It’s part of the service. A cheery “Merry Christmas” will help.