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The Dead Letter Office by Mrs. P. L. Collins


Of course, dear readers, all of you have heard of the Dead-letter Office at Washington, and I suppose you have the same vague idea that I had until I went there and learned better—that it is a place where letters are sent when they fail to reach those for whom they are intended, and are thence returned to the writers. Really, now, I believe this is what most grown-up people think too; but in truth, it is such a wonderful place that I am sure you will be surprised when I tell you of some of the things you may find there, and I think when you come to Washington it will be one of the first places you will wish to visit.

Probably you have never written a great many letters, and I do not doubt that each one had its envelope neatly addressed by your father or mother, while you stood by to see that it was well done. I hope, too, that in due time your letters had the nice replies they deserved. You would have been much disappointed if any of them had been "lost in the mail," as people say, wouldn't you? You will not forget your stamp, I am sure, after I have related the following incident:

There was once a little girl, only ten years old, who was spending six months in the city of New York, just previous to sailing for Europe. Her heart was filled with love for her darling grandpapa, whom she had left in New Orleans, and she wrote to him twice every week. Her letters were in the French language; at least, the one that I saw was, and it began "Cher Grandpère cheri." She said, "I hope that you have received the slippers I embroidered for you, and the fifteen dollars I sent in my last letter to have them made." But, alas! the package containing the slippers had reached the "cher grandpère cheri," while the letter and money were missing. Then this old gentleman wrote to the Dead-letter Office, and said that it was the only one of his granddaughter's letters he had ever failed to receive; that it could not have been misdirected; and his carrier had been on the same route for many years, so he knew him to be honest; therefore the money must have been mysteriously swallowed up in the D. L. O.

What was to be done? Do you imagine the Dead-letter Office shook in its shoes?

Not a bit of it. It turned to a big book, and found a number which stood opposite the little girl's letter, and then straightway laid hands upon the letter itself, and forwarded it to the indignant "grandpère."

Now why all this trouble and delay, and saying of naughty things to the D. L. O., without which he might never have seen either his letter or his money? Simply this: the dear child had dropped her letter into the box without a stamp.

You will be surprised to learn that something over four millions of letters are sent to the Dead-letter Office every year.

There are three things that render them liable to this: first, being unclaimed by persons to whom they are addressed; second, when some important part of the address is omitted, as James Smith, Maryland; third, the want of postage. All sealed letters must have at least one three-cent stamp, unless they are to be delivered from the same office in which they are mailed, when they must have a one or a two cent stamp, according to whether the office has carriers or not.

For the second cause mentioned above about sixty-five thousand letters were sent to the Dead-letter Office during the past year; for the third, three hundred thousand, and three thousand had no address whatever.

When these letters reach the Dead-letter Office, they are divided into two general classes, viz., Domestic and Foreign, the latter being returned unopened to the countries from which they started.

The domestic letters, after being opened, are classed according to their contents. Those containing money are called "Money Letters;" those with drafts, money-orders, deeds, notes, etc., "Minor Letters;" and such as inclose receipts, photographs, etc., "Sub-Minors." Letters which contain anything, even a postage-stamp, are recorded, and those with money or drafts are sent to the postmasters where the letters were first mailed, for them to find the owners, and get a receipt. From $35,000 to $50,000 come into the office in this way during the year; but a large proportion is restored to the senders, and the remainder is deposited in the United States Treasury to the credit of the Post-office Department.

When letters contain nothing of value, if possible they are returned to the writers. There are clerks so expert in reading all kinds of writing that they can discern a plain address where ordinary eyes could not trace a word. For instance, you could not make much of this:

A dead-letter clerk at once translates it:

Mr. Hensson King,
Tobacco Stick,
Dorchester County,
In haste.

And such spelling! Would you ever imagine that Galveston could be tortured into "Calresdon," Connecticut into "Kanedikait," and Territory into "Teartoir"?

Recently the Postmaster-General has found it necessary to issue very strict orders about plain addresses, and a great many people have tried to be witty at his expense. I copied this address from a postal card:

Alden Simmons,
Savannah Township,
Ashland County, State of Ohio;
Age 29; Occupation, Lawyer;
Politics, Republican;
Longitude West from Troy 2°;
Street Main
No. 249;
Box 1008.
Color, White;
Sex, Male;
Ancestry, Domestic.
For President 1880, U. S. Grant!

About once in two years there is a sale of the packages which are detained in the office for the same reason that letters are. All the small articles are placed in envelopes, on which are written brief descriptions of their contents. Any one is allowed the privilege of examining them before purchasing. There are thousands of these packages, containing almost everything you can think of. I glanced over an old catalogue, and selected at random half a dozen things that will give you an idea of the endless variety: Florida beans, surgical instruments, cat-skin, boy's jacket, map of the Holy Land, two packages of corn starch, and a diamond ring—in truth, as the chief of the D. L. O. says in his report, "everything from a small bottle of choice perfumery to a large box of Limburger cheese."

But there were two things that nobody would ever buy, so this great institution was obliged to keep them. One was a horrid, grinning, skeleton head, that had been sent to Dr. Gross, the eminent Philadelphia surgeon; but the box being nailed so that the postmaster could not examine its contents without breaking it, he was obliged to charge letter rates of postage, which the doctor refused to pay; consequently it found a proper resting-place in the house appropriated specially to dead things.

Occupying the same shelf are several glass jars containing serpents of various sizes preserved in alcohol. These snakes were received at the D. L. O. in two large tin cans, the ends of which were perforated to admit air. They were addressed to a professor in Germany. It could not be ascertained at what office they had been mailed. There were seventeen in all, but some of the smaller ones were dead.

System, punctuality, industry, belong to the Dead-letter Office. It seems to embrace every other branch of business, and, as I have shown you, even to know how to treat such unwelcome guests as a nest of live serpents.