With the recent news that US Postal Service losses in 2011 have been far greater than expected – They're now losing more than $3 billion per fiscal quarter – and with the continued decline in mail volume, it seems only a matter of time until Congress takes the austerity stick uses it to beat the agency half to death. Your anecdotal experience is probably enough to explain why; try to think of the last time you received mail that wasn't garbage. If I didn't occasionally buy something off eBay that arrived by mail, credit card junk mail is the only thing I would ever receive. The Postal Service is unlikely to disappear, but it is highly likely that we won't recognize it in a few more years. Post offices will be closed and consolidated, delivery will be limited to a few times per week in some areas, and the agency will devote even more of its resources to shipping packages as opposed to carrying letters.
In honor of the long history of the USPS (and its predecessor, the Post Office Department originally headed by Ben Franklin, here is a random, hopefully entertaining list of interesting postal trivia and oddities I've amassed over the years.
– As of 2011, the USPS still delivers mail regularly via mule train on one route. An 8-mile trip to the bottom of a canyon to deliver mail to Havasupi Indians in Arizona occurs weekly. Mules, people.
– Although it has been a source of controversy, the most expensive mail route in the U.S. continues as the only one with delivery solely by air. Once per week a subcontractor, who is paid over $50,000 annually in the contract, flies mail to 20 cabins and ranches in the Frank Church Wilderness Area in Idaho. (The cuts referenced in this NPR story were later overturned by the Postmaster General).
– The Zip Code 48222 is a boat on the Detroit River called the J.W. Westcott, which deliver mail to passing ships without either vessel docking. WTF. I have never understood this. But it exists.
– The longest daily rural mail route is 148 miles long and snakes through rural northwestern North Dakota. It serves less than 100 addresses over that vast distance. North Dakota is not a very exciting place, is it? And I bet the letter carriers draw straws to avoid this route.
– The very first daily, day-and-night transcontinental air mail route – from NYC to San Francisco – was established in 1924. The plane stopped between 12 and 16 times for fuel. Air travel has changed a lot, hasn't it.
– Zip Codes rise as one travels west. The highest, 99950, belongs to Ketchikan, Alaska, home of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" that became an issue in the 2008 election. The lowest, 00501, serves a single IRS office building in New York.
– The Pentagon has six Zip Codes. For a single building. The World Trade Center had one as well. Until 2008, Chicago's Merchandise Mart also had its own (60654).
– Marc Chagall's painting "Study for Over Vitebsk" was stolen the Jewish Museum in New York in 2001 and found in a Topeka, Kansas dead letter office. Legally, dead letters are the only kind of mail that can be opened by the Postal Service in an attempt to determine the intended recipient. Or to discover priceless art.
– Loma Linda, CA has no Saturday delivery but is the only municipality with regular Sunday delivery. The town has a large percentage of Seventh Day Adventists, including among its postal workers, who will not work on Saturday.
– The Post Office Department, forerunner of the USPS, had a seriously awesome logo:
– In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, mail was delivered several times per day. In major cities like New York, deliveries in business districts took place almost continuously during the day. Wall Street and Lower Manhattan were the last areas with two-per-day delivery, which ended in 1990.
– For the last 20 years, new USPS employees have seen a training video starring one of the most famous fictional mailmen, Cliff Clavin of Cheers.
– Mail delivery to and in Alaska is a major drain on the USPS. With a poor road network and low population density, it has hundreds of towns to which mail must be flown daily.
– The largest USPS facility in the country by far is Chicago's main post office / sorting facility. It is so large that Interstate 290 travels underneath it at one point. Most of the complex has been abandoned for years. Daley wanted to turn it into a casino.
– A little girl was mailed from Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents in Lewiston in 1914. A cooperative postmaster invoiced the child as a "48 pound baby chicken", two pounds under the 50 limit on mailing live poultry. Rather than being sealed in a box, the address was pinned to her dress and she rode with the mail carrier in the cab of the delivery vehicle.
Feel free to add your own trivia or relay some amusing anecdotes. Before we forget all of this stuff.