Print a recipient’s name and address in the center, then place a return address in the top-left corner and stick your stamp on the top-right corner. Drop your envelope in a mailbox. Wait.
For anyone too young or forgetful, that’s how you mail a letter using the Unites States postal system. It’s not a glamourous process, one far flung from the instant, emoji-filled communication most people rely on today. But it wasn’t too long ago that the mail delivery person was a familiar fixture of communities across the country, and Pittsburgh was no exception.
July 1 marks 170 years since the U.S. government issued its first postage stamp, a portrait of Ben Franklin costing 5 cents and a George Washington portrait costing 10 cents. The anniversary seemed like the perfect opportunity for The Digs to spotlight the people who’ve brought Pittsburghers their mail regardless of snow, rain, heat or the strain of large hills.
Mailman’s Best Friend
One stereotype of life as a mail carrier is the constant danger presented by neighborhood pets. An adorable beagle turns rabid the moment a man with a satchel approaches. Say goodbye to Fido and hello to a fanged monster more interested in shins than peanut butter.
At least, that’s what us civilians always heard.
We did find one archived picture of a mailman having a dog bite stitched, but there are many more images of mail carriers enjoying the company of some furry home security systems. Some of these postal workers even seemed to bring dogs of their own along as company on their routes.
There have always been some communities underserved by public services, and Western Pennsylvania’s rural families were the ones most in need of attention during the early 20th century.
“WANTED — Mail carrier for rural route. Salary $135 per month; must furnish own vehicle; man with horse and buggy preferred,” a 1920 classifieds ad placed in The Pittsburgh Press read.
The carriers filling these slots often struggled to overcome the era’s limited transportation options. Even after automobiles became a standard sight, horses and buggies remained the primary delivery system for most rural postal workers.
A notable character from the archives was Levi Fisher, a man the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described in 1974 as “the only Amish mailman in the country.” Fisher belonged to a more liberal branch of his faith and was allowed to make deliveries with a car instead of a buggy. His route was 51 miles long and served 2,206 customers, but Fisher was unfazed by the job’s burdens when he spoke with the Post-Gazette.
“I just enjoy my job,” Fisher said. “I get to see lots of people around here and to keep in touch with who’s who and what’s what.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that December is typically the busiest month of the year for many post offices, and that comes through clearly in the pictures we found of the holiday boom.
According to The Pittsburgh Press, a 1963 post office in the city could expect to handle over 53 million holiday cards during December alone. That’s on top of 107 million pieces of routine mail sent monthly, and most of the influx wouldn’t even be close to organized until the week before Christmas.
The pressure didn’t prevent postal workers from joining the seasonal fun, though. Pittsburgh post offices hired a troupe of performers during the 1960s to help children write letters for Santa and show them how to properly send mail. Named Mr. Zip and the three Miss Zips, this group traveled traveling between post offices promoting Downtown’s decorated drop boxes and encouraging kids to write letters for Santa.
Some post offices responded to letters addressed to Santa with postcards encouraging children to spend the next year being just as good, or better, as they were the previous one. The New Kensington location was one such office, and their cards included an extra reminder to keep an eye out for Mr. Zip.
“Mr. Zip will help me find you,” Santa’s mailman impersonators wrote. “You are my helper too, when you use Zip codes.”
Just like every letter has its own path and story, so do the mailboxes they land in. At least, that seems to be the case for 1970s Pittsburgh. From molded metal to elaborate paint designs, mailboxes across the city told passersby a little about the people living just a few yards away.
One family with the last name “Shovel” took a literal approach: They built a large shovel out of wood and carved a hole for postage. Another man was searching through auto scrap yards when he realized that a crankshaft would be the ideal replacement for his box’s boring, wooden post.
In a more subtle act of expression, some families posted mailboxes with paintings or Pennsylvania Dutch stencils on the side. According to captions on the pictures of boxes we found, most of these designs were from books passed down for generations. Putting out the artwork for everyone to see was just one more way for these families to connect with their ancestral roots.
There’s nothing particularly prestigious about working as a mail carrier. The hours are long and the shorts are often unflattering. But there aren’t many people willing to brave blizzards, heat and the gloom of night just to bring you some coupons.
That’s the postman’s unofficial creed, and for nearly 250 years, the mail carriers of Pittsburgh have stood by their word.
— Matt Moret