Mysteries of the Dead Letter Office
S. D. SANGSTER
WHY do letters in Canada go astray? Sometimes the persons supposed to have posted them have not done so. Possibly some forgetful man is carrying letters given him by his wife or daughter in his coat pocket, or mayhap a child has been dispatched to the office with two cents and a letter and the irresponsible offspring has exchanged the coppers for candy and chewing gum instead of a stamp. Or perhaps an incorrect address—or no address at all —has been given.
The causes of miscarriage and nondelivery in His Majesty’s mails are as varied as the temperaments and disposition of the millions of people who use the post office. During the last
fiscal year 2,577,909 letters, packets and parcels found their way to the different dead letter offices in Canada. One might as well attempt to analyze the shortcomings, the whims and follies of fickle human nature as to tell exactly how and why so many communications failed to connect consignor and consignee.
Letters from business firms seldom go astray. They do not constitute more than ten per cent, of dead letters. The remaining ninety per cent, are communications of a private or friendly nature, and are lost largely through carelessness, thoughtlessness, haste or ignorance.
“Plum Hollow,” “'Gooseberry Row,” “Devil’s Elbow,” “Stoney
Lonesome,” “Sandy Hill,” “The Six Corners,” “Rocky Precipice,” “Holy Land,” “The Berry Patch,” “Jumping-off Place,” “Dark Town,” “Hog's Back,” “Purgatory,” “Sodom,” “The Graveyard,” “Spookville,” “Ghost’s Valley,” “Old Joe’s Tavern,” “Lover’s Lane,” etc., are names which are frequently written on envelopes as post office addresses when they are only local or “nick-names.” Such picturesque titles may be familiar to rural residents in certain localities, but one would search in vain for such sombre sobriquets among the 11,823 offices in the official postal list of the Dominion.
Often the name of a place in the post office guide and in the railway timetable does not correspond. In railway circles the burg may be known as Bismarck, and in mail matters as West Lome. Careless correspondents in Canada and foreign lands put down anything that comes conveniently to mind, and thus results the endless story of lost letters.
“I would like to work in a dead letter office,” exclaims a pert young miss. “Just think the great fun that the girls must have there, reading love letters that go astray, proposals of marimony, jealous jibes, sentimental sighs, family feuds and gossip of weddings, balls and parties ! Indeed, it must be immense.”
What a primrose path of pleasure, but, alas ! there is a thorn in the way. The rules are as rigid as the laws of the Medes and Persians. No employe is permitted to read aloud a single passage no matter how tempting and ludicrous, or even to show it to another in the office. A clerk must not talk about the contents of a letter, that has found it way there, either within or without the walls. The servant in a bank, who would inform an outsider of the size of the balance standing to the credit of a customer, would lose his post so quickly that his breath would come hi gasps—and the interior intelligence of a dead letter office is equally sacred and confidential. Clerks are not even given per-
mission to read anything more than what is necessary to learn the name and address of tne writer, so that the missive may be returned to the sender for better or more complete direction. If they do, dismissal is their lot. In certain instances, of course, a letter has to be scanned from superscription to signature, and even then no light on the mystery of its ownership or authorship may be had.
Supposing some effusive and inquisitive young lady or youth in the office did relish the reading of domestic tragedies, love's entanglements and messages that are vibrant with joy or pain, devotion or despair, the appetite would very soon be appeased. Secrets that have to be shared alone, no matter how excruciatingly funny, soon lose their charm if they cannot be communicated to some one else. The keen edge of scandal and curiosity is speedily dulled.. A police court reporter, is perhaps moved to compassion or consternation at the sad scenes he witnesses when he first records the proceedings, but in a week it becomes an old story. He attends from a strict sense of duty. His morbidness has all vanished : his sympathies do not work overtime. He proceeds to the daily session because it is his assignment. The child of a confectioner soon ceases to care for chocolates. The jeweler rarely decorates himself with diamonds, nor does a sensible milliner move along the streets displaying some crazy creation of flowers and feathers; yet the milliner and the jeweler could shine in their own adornments if they wished. From that which is in. around and about us we are glad at times to be delivered. It is the same hi scanning the contents of misdirected mail matter. The romantic idea quickly vanishes.
In a dead letter office railway folded. guide books, directories, atlases— all conceivable sources of mformafon —are searched in an effort to find some of the colloquial names used in the addressing of envelopes, so that the post office may forward the let-
iers to the person intended. Should these avenues of research fail, the misdirected letter, when sent from villages and small towns, is returned to the postmaster, and a yellow slip or memo accompanies it, asking if he can furnish the name and address of the writer of a letter posted at such a place on such and such a date. The
letter is headed -
and signed -. The
postmaster makes full inquiries and in his reply the memo has also to 'be returned.
Many misdirected letters from the cities are merely headed, Toronto. Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax or Vancouver, and signed, “Sincerely yours, Tim.” “Your loving niece, Annie,” “Your old schoolmate, Tennie,” or “Your dying, devoted admirer, Percival.” Nothing definite is given with reference to the identity of the writer. his or her street address, or house number—all of which is so essential to the prompt and proper delivery of
mail in the congested centres of Canada. How under heaven is a clerk in a dead letter office to know who “Jim,” “Annie,” “Jennie” or “Percival” are, or in what part of the city they reside, so that the epistle may be returned to them for better direction? Marvel not then that thousands of such letters never reach their destination.
George J. Binks is the superintendent of the head dead letter office, which is located on the fourth floor of the rebuilt city post office in the Capital. He has been five years in that position and a dead letter office official for thirty-four years. “I contend,” he declares, “'that while letterwriting is taught in our schools, instruction should go farther than it does. Writers should be taught to be as accurate and painstaking in the matter of attaching their full name and address as they are about the style and proper wording of a social rote or a letter to some exalted per-
sonage. Letters are frequently posted with no name at all on the envelope, or perhaps the name alone, no post office address being given. There are thousands of these finding their way to the dead letter office every week.
“To illustrate what I mean—a letter is addressed to ‘Mrs. Thomas Brown, Plum Hollow, Ont.,’ It is headed ‘St. John,’ and signed, ‘Your affectionate cousin, Minnie.’ In the first instance there is no such post office as Plum Hollow, and the letter is forwarded to the nearest local dead letter office to ascertain the identity of the writer, so that it may be returned to her for fuller or more accurate direction. The clerk glances through the sheets in a forlorn hope of finding out who the sender is or her street address. All that can possibly be learned from the contents is, ‘Minnie,’ St. John, N.B.’ There are perhaps two or three hundred ladies of that Christian name in the city and how is an employe to know which ‘Minnie’ is referred to. Post office staffs are only human. Thev are not as some people suppose, gifted with wisdom divine.
“Now, what I contend is, that in all schools instruction should be imparted to write at the head of each letter the street address—I am speaking, of course, with respect to the larger centres of population—and also to sign the name, or in every case g’ve the surname along with the Christian name or initials. Tf this was car’*ied out, the number of letters in the Dominion that do not reach their destination would be comparatively smah. In the instance of which I have spoken, if only a street address, say, 119 King Street, had been given, this misdirected letter would have gone back from the nearest dead letter office to the sender, addressed to ‘Minnie.’ TTQ King Street, St. Tohn, N.B.,’ and. as there would possibly be onlv one person of that name in the house, she would, in all probability, get back her wronglv addressed letter. Better still, if the full name, sav. ‘Minnie Kennedv,’ 119 King Street.’ had been
signed, then beyond a doubt the writer would receive the letter.
“To sign a full name and give a street address may, in the case of personal, friendly or family correspondence, seem formal and ceremonious, but, nevertheless, it would guard against thousands of erroneously addressed communications which never reach the addressee. It is for the reason I have referred to, and many others I might mention, that I maintain that in the schools our future letter writers of Canada should be impressed with the importance of always putting their full name and street address in every message sent through the mails. It would prevent misunderstandings and much sorrow, loss, and disappointment.
“Only clerks in a dead letter office know of the carelessness, the thoughtlessness, the inaccuracies—and, yes, I may add, the stupidity of countless Canadian correspondents. It is the same story the world over. Every dead letter office in home or foreign lands has the same trials and difficulties to solve day after day. Mail clerks, letter carriers and postmasters are not infallable, but neither is the public, which is too prone to attach blame where it does not properly belong.”
Although the offices are called “Dead Letter,” the communications which find their way there are divided into two classes, known as “Special” and “Dead” letters. A dead letter is one unclaimed or refused by the consignee ; in other words, it has no owner, except the writer. A special letter is one wholly unpaid, or with incomplete directions. A dead letter is returned to the writer, if his or her name is given, and a statutory charge of two cents demanded. It is not often that correspondents decline to redeem what they have written. Persons frequently refuse to take letters out of a post office if they think accounts are contained therein. They will stoutly deny that the letter is intended for them. Many of these “dunners,” as some persist in calling
them, find their way to the dead letter office in case the name of a firm does not appear upon the envelope, so that it can be sent back direct. A letter, to which insufficient postage has been attached, is not as often refused by the consignee, as one would suppose.
During the last fiscal year 834,357 ordinary dead letters were received in Canada. The return dead letters, that is, letters sent out from dead1 letter branches and returned unclaimed, numbered 54,295, while there were 101,971 special letters, that is, those received for better direction. There were 20 617 dead registered letters that came into the offices during the pear, of which 18,474 were returned to the writer, and 1,272 remained
awaiting claim. There were 11,313 special registered letters received for postage or better direction. Of these, 11,010 were sent back to the writers or forwarded to the addressees. From these figures one may see how thorough the dead letter offices are in their system of work and how perfect is the plan they pursue. Canada has seven dead letter offices and seven branches, more familiarly known as local dead letter offices. The former are located in Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax. The branches are in St. Tohn, Charlottetown, Quebec, Sherbrooke. Kingston, Hamilton and London. The branches deal solely with packets and post cards..
How long does a letter not called for remain in an office before it is sent to a dead letter office? In cities it is fifteen days, and in post offices other than cities it will rest undisturbed for thirty days before being sent to the “graveyard,” as a dead letter office is occasionally termed. Parcels containing everything from a pocket knife to a shirt, for which an office is unable to find a consignor or consignee, are kept two years. No one appearing as owner, an auction sale, which is largely attended, is held every three or four years, and occasionally some good bargains are obtained by the bidders, who at times make matters lively. Anything that has not been on ¡the premises fully two years is retained in the hope that the rightful possessor may appear. A cash book is kept, properly indexed, so that the date of the receipt of any letter of value, its disposition, etc., can be looked up in a minute.
Misdirected domestic mail matter is treated at the branch dead letter offices, but all dead foreign mail matter has to be transmitted direct to the head dead letter office, Ottawa, where it is periodically forwarded to the country of its origin. Dead letter offices and their branches have at 'the end of each week to send all letters, which have not been dispatched to the writers or addressees, to the head office at Ottawa. Each dead letter office has its own division as well as its local branch. At the head office a further effort is made to locate the writer or person to whom the epistle is intended. The various postmasters in large centres in Canada must keep a record of each letter sent to the dead letter offices, the date, and other particulars, so that is may be traced at any subsequent time.
Ordinary unclaimed letters of no apparent value are destroyed at once in a dead letter office if they cannot be returned to the writer. All registered letters, if of value or containing value, are kept five years before being
destroyed, but registered letters of evidently no worth are held only one year. Any money not claimed is placed away in a bank to the credit of the Receiver General of Canada. The amount of cash, for which no claimants appear, aggregates $1,200 to $1.400 annually. The total at the present time, to the credit of this fund, which goes on periodically and is reduced more or less as applications are made, is not easy to furnish. The money itself dees not remain in the Post Office Department, but is deposited from time to time in the bank.
In the event of any application being made for any lettecontaining money, which has previous to application been removed, a cheque for the amount is sent to the applicant, who may be either the writer or the addressee.
There are some sixtv foreign countries to which Canada transmits mails and from which mails are received. All foreign dead letters, parcels, packets, etc., are dispatched once a week to the United States. England and France. To other foreign lands a monthly return is made. Various other methods of the dead letter offices of Canada are too intricate to be of popular interest.
Canadians are certainly a letterwriting people, 396.000,000 letters, or about 60 per head, passing through the mails during the last fiscal year, as well as 40.000.000 nost cards. 80,000.000 newspapers, books and parcels, and last—and certainly most important of all. if you get one—0.078.000 registered letters. There were 446 new post offices opened last year, and the postage issue was $8.685.370. Canada was the first colony to inaugurate pennv postage, and the first rural mail delivery was begun in the Dominion several months ago. As can readilv be observed, the postal system of Canada is one of progress and development, reflecting great credit upon the administration of the Post Office Department.