Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11, 2010: Washington - Neither Rain..., Capitol Hill Bermuda Triangle

Happily the weather was just fine (although back to the usual 36 degrees Celsius and super-humid) as I headed out to the Postal Museum. Being waylaid by inclement weather would have been too ironic, what with the 'neither ran, nor snow...' motto of the US Postal Service (which turns out to not be an official motto!).

I timed my visit to take advantage of the free tour, and I'm glad I did. Our guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic - you could tell that the postal service (particularly stamps) were a real passion of his. There were interesting artifacts from the different delivery methods: from trains (special post 'offices' on train cars, designed to pick mail up on the fly to sort and deliver with big hooks hung off the side to pluck the mailbags from the stations) to planes (again with the hooks to grab mail off the runway).

The early history of the US Postal Service was surprisingly interesting - as the colonies revolted against British rule they desperately needed their own post, since the British could open any mail and quell any newspaper reports about the revolution - there was virtually no other way to communicate at large with the public.

Later history was interesting too, particularly the development of rural home delivery. As my mother used to bring home some funny stories from her days of delivering mail on the rural routes I made sure to take photos of the funnier signage to share with her (like postal delivery workers who would open a person's box to find a note saying that they were on vacation for the week, so could they please feed the chickens each day).

After the Postal Museum I planned to walk to a nearby farmer's market. I'd checked the directions beforehand and drew myself a quick map of the streets to get there. But I'd ended up in that weird Bermuda Triangle (or Quadrangle) of Washington where the streets start quadruplicating around Capitol Hill: cross too far and you go from B St NE to B St SE, and if you don't know which one you need, there's no good way of knowing which one to choose. After slogging through the heat trying more than one option I gave in, got back on the subway, took a round-about route to the station next to the market.

Here follows text from the rural free delivery portion of the museum:


Some Rural Free Delivery customers expected more than the Post office intended to provide. One carrier opened a mailbox to find a grocery list and request to bring the provisions with the next day's mail. A dime was left for his trouble.


"Please feed our chickens and water the cows and the mule in the stable and if the bees have swarmed put them in a new hive. We have gone visiting." Request made of a rural mail carrier by a patron, 1912.


Tina cans, apple crates, lard buckets, and other odds and ends were among the first rural mailboxes. These containers were often the wrong size and placed at varying heights, and some held remnants of oil or syrup that stained the letters. Rural carriers and local postmasters appealed to the Post Office Department to impose standards for rural mailboxes.


RFD customers didn't hesitate to leave stampless letters in their mailbox, sometimes with loose change to cover the postage. Carriers also found eggs, butter, and farm goods left as barter for postage.


Rural mailboxes are supposed to be for mail only. But some have housed bird's nests, and many have served as target practice.


Early Rural Free Delivery carriers had to buy their own wagons and sleds. Carriers also were expected to use their own horses and pay for their feed and care. There is room for only one person in the sled. But carriers often were accompanies by baby chicks or live insects, safely mailed in shipping crates.


Photos: Planes! Trains (the interior of a postal train)! and Sledmobiles! a display of international post boxes - why does Canada's seem like such a hulk?

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