For more than 200 years from its beginnings in the 1770s, the Dead Letter Office was where Americans’ letters and parcels were sent if they were unclaimed or undeliverable. Some items were redirected: the DLO had a “blind reading” department trained to decipher illegible or vague addresses (“To my Son he lives out West he drives a red ox the rale rode goes By Thar”).
The office would incinerate the others or auction their contents, which included, according to one sale list, anything from wedding rings to “False Bosoms” and quack medicines, such as “the cure-all Tennessee Swamp Shrub”. It was estimated that 6bn pieces of mail were posted in the US in 1898, of which 6.3m ended up at the DLO in Washington, DC. “What romance was to be had in an undelivered or undeliverable letter!” Simon Garfield writes in To The Letter. “And what mystery and sadness too.”
Well, the romance and mystery have certainly gone. The US Postal Service has renamed the DLO the Mail Recovery Center, consolidated four locations into one in Atlanta, Georgia, and is pushing through a “Lean Six Sigma” process improvement project to make it more efficient. Asked if they write letters, most people would echo the DLO’s famous fictional former clerk Bartleby in the Herman Melville story: “I would prefer not to.”
Plainly, instant electronic means of communication – email, of course, but increasingly social media such as Twitter and Facebook – have pushed pen, paper and postboxes to the edge of most private correspondents’ consciousness. It may be nice to think that investors’ enthusiasm for this month’s public offering of shares in Britain’s Royal Mail, the world’s oldest postal service, is based on a revival of letter writing, “the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”, in Virginia’s Woolf’s words. In fact, Royal Mail’s daily postbag is at its lowest for 20 years, and it predicts the volume of letters – most of which are for business and marketing – will fall at up to 6 per cent a year. The Royal Mail’s future lies in delivery of items ordered on the internet. Even Postman Pat, the children’s cartoon character, has had to amend his theme tune to reflect the fact he now brings more “parcels through your door” than letters.