It’s the time of year when fireplace mantles are filling up with holiday cards and brown-wrapped parcels are delivered to doorsteps. The packages, letters, and cards we drop into mail-slots across the country contribute to an annual crescendo in the activities of the United States Postal Service (USPS). In the 2015 holiday season, the USPS expects to deliver 15.5 billion pieces of mail, including over half a billion packages. Over 600,000 postal workers are dedicated to making sure that all of this holiday mail is successfully delivered.
But, even with all those people, 15.5 billion pieces of mail are just too much for humans alone to process and deliver. The USPS relies on many machines and automated processes in order to increase efficiency and ensure speedy deliveries. At the National Archives and Records Administration, we hold numerous films that document the development of this technology.
Before 1971, the USPS was known as the Post Office Department (POD). Some advances in the automation of mail processing were achieved in the 1950s and 1960s, but they were not enough to keep up with ever-increasing amounts of mail. In 1966, the Chicago Post Office found itself with such a large backlog of mail that it had to be shut down. Mail was routed through other post offices, causing a widespread disruption in service. On July 5, 1966, Congress passed Public Law 89-492, an act establishing the Bureau of Research and Engineering within the USPS. As seen in the following film from 1970, the Bureau carried out research and development activities aimed at innovating ways to automate some of the more repetitive and time-consuming aspects of postal work.
Other Bureau of Research and Engineering films highlight specific processes, such as mail culling and stamp cancelling (this time in 1968).
The USPS was also an early adopter of large-scale Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. This next 1970 film explains how an OCR system could read the city, state, and zip code of an address to expedite the sorting process.
This holiday season, whether you’re scheduling pickup of a package or buying seasonal stamps at a Self Service Postal Unit, take a moment to think about all of the fascinating work that goes on behind the scenes of the USPS every day of the year.
The USPS has information about holiday shipping deadlines here.
You can watch our entire playlist of postal service films here!