Good old days at the post office

English mailbox detail

Detail of an English mailbox. Image by Tony Eppstein.

In December of 1962, before there were mail codes or mechanical sorters, I worked for a week at the post office in Windsor, England, helping with the Christmas rush. I mentioned it in letters to parents:

18 Dec. 1962
…Hope this reaches you in time for Christmas – along with the other thousands of tons of mail being posted this week. I know – I have to sort the stuff. I am spending the week working in the sorting room at the post office. Very difficult job! – turning the stamps up the right way as the letters come out of the postbags. Have to work pretty hard, but it’s rather fun – very cheerful, friendly crowd – and good money.

26 Dec. 1962
…I had a very interesting week in the Post Office. Halfway through the week I was promoted to sorting, which was a bit more fun, though harder work than facing up.

Those were the days, before email, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, when the annual holiday greeting card was how one kept in touch with extended family and friends. According to Wikipedia the custom of sending greeting cards has a long history, dating back to the ancient Chinese. The postage stamp was introduced in England in 1840. Cards started being mass produced by the 1850s. From then on, mailboxes became crammed each December with penned good wishes.

global stamp

A 2014 USPS stamp for international mail.

Every card and letter had to be sorted by hand. Mechanical sorting, which depended on reducing the address to a machine-readable form, came in a few years after my stint at the Windsor post office: the 5-digit ZIP code was introduced in the U.S. in 1963, and England’s alphanumeric postcode system in 1966.

Communication methods have changed, and fewer greetings now go by “snail mail.” The U.S. Postal Service reports that First-Class Single Piece Mail; that is, mail bearing postage stamps, such as bill payments, personal correspondence, cards and letters, etc., declined by 47 percent in the decade 2005–2014. But that urge to reach out to those we love during the holiday season is still with us.

7 Responses to “Good old days at the post office”

  • Maxine Binning:

    I still enjoy handwriting cards and sending them off each Christmas. This year I have not sent except by email as I had an unexpected move. My lease was not renewed and I had until Dec 6 to vacate, so I have been apartment hunting and then exiting my old address and moving into this one. Phone and email addresses are the same but the new address is:
    West Lake Villas
    30/241 Horizon Drive
    West Lake Queensland 4074 Australia
    I wish both you and Tony a fun filled and peaceful Christmas and New Year.
    Maxine B

  • Kate:

    Thank you for this. Ah, yes, bygone times. Because I stay in touch with everyone I care about via email, I stopped sending Christmas cards a few years ago.

  • Karen:

    You must have a brilliant collection of international stamps as well as the treasured correspondence with your family. How on earth does a snail mail ever make it around the globe? It’s kind of a miracle, I think.
    Thank you for another fun blog post, Maureen!

  • Judi:


    Although I send cards and scribble notes, I really loved your and Tony’s Happy Solstice email. Haven’t commented on your blog in a while, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love getting it!

    Hope your family is gathering next week end! Good wishes to all.

  • Barbara:

    I now selectively send cards via stamp for a variety of reasons, but if I didn’t I would deprive myself of a simple Christmas joy. Picking out the right card for each special person is fun for me and like any effort meant to convey feelings of love and care, I can only hope the receiver likes it.

    Cards as a once-a-year news delivery system always worked for me, but I don’t miss the ones with the lengthy, on-going litany of accomplishments by the kids, their kids, and the animals, including Clyde the guinea pig, and the latest yacht purchase (I’m kidding).

    Wishing you and Tony a lovely winter season that includes bulging aquifers and walks on crisp days.

  • Linda:

    I still enjoy handwriting cards to friends & family, and remember how fun it was to recognize the handwriting of someone else on an envelope arriving in the mail. Seems we do live in a time when hand writing, particularly cursive, is a thing of the past. Glad I still have friends who appreciate it as I do.
    Have an absolutely wonderful Holiday Season, Maureen!

  • Joan Hansen:

    I enjoy writing to friends and receiving hand written notes. I fear the young will not be able to write cursive. They are addicted to texting and have created a language of abbreviations for that. it is sad.

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