Please Explain: The Post Office

Friday, January 18, 2013

When you drop a letter in a mailbox, how exactly does it end up where it’s supposed to go? We’ll find out how the U.S. Postal Service works and why it’s struggling for survival. Nancy A. Pope, curator from the National Postal Museum and organizer of Systems at Work, and Richard John, professor at Columbia University School of Journalism and author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse.


Richard John and Nancy A. Pope

Comments [24]

USPS Employee from New York, NY

To Eli5 from Brookyn. If the sender had used your 9-digit ZIP Code the letter would have arrived, even they had incorrectly written "Avenue."

The last four digits designate specific streets, blocks, and buildings. Using only the first five digits can slow delivery and failure to use apartment numbers can cause mail to be returned. Carriers deliver by address and apartment (not names) based on the bar code which sorts the pieces before the carrier receives them.

If you don't know your 9-digit ZIP check a utility bill or correspondence from your bank. Organizations get a discount for using ZIP Plus 4 because it helps speed the mail.

Jan. 18 2013 06:42 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Rude Boy - Spot on! No doubt foreign rates like China's are anti-competitive, and a burden with which the USPS has to comply/compete. Not unlike the political drubbing the GOP and private industry (FedEx, UPS) give it already.

To SuperF88's point, the USPS is still a wholly American company, and worth supporting when we have the choice. I will say that I've had fewer snags using the guaranteed/trackable USPS services than I have FedEx and UPS! They still offer good value!

Jan. 18 2013 02:23 PM
rude boy from Williamsburg

I bet the US post office is getting hit with a gigantic loss when fulfilling small product orders from cheap labor countries like China!

There are hundreds of mailorder businesses in China that sell small, penny & low dollar items like cables, electronics direct to US customers. The shipping cost to the customer is included in the price. ("ships free").
If you would try to ship these small items from the west coast, the shipping cost alone would be much higher than the product price. If those companies or the Chinese post office hand over a container with 10.000s of small envelopes to The US post office at an airport, the US postal office has to do the lion share of the work with 90% of the cost, but, I'm sure, gets only compensated a fraction of the cost by the foreign postal service. I can imagine that those international treaties work on reciprocity, but when the trade & exchange is so unbalanced as it probably is with China,...the US postal service has to eat up a huge deficit...

Hate if my small electronics orders
would go up in price, but this is just unbalanced...

Jan. 18 2013 02:12 PM
Jf from Ny

Cutting down forests for junk mail is insanity. This is mass suicide as trees clean and create air. Usi.g airplanes that pollute as much as 3000 cars is sick and disgusting, use dirigibles.

Jan. 18 2013 02:05 PM
Eli5 from Brooklyn

In these letter/handwriting reading machines, the guest talked about, which takes precedence, the zip code or address.
I know a strange question- But I just received a letter, with the correct zip & street name, but the incorrect designation, Avenue instead of Street. The letter first went to the Avenue address, then came to the correct Street address.
This happened often 20 yrs ago, but not in a long while.
So which takes precedence?

Jan. 18 2013 02:02 PM
John A

Earlier discussions were about the disaster tolerance of landline phones vs anything else. I make the same observation on relying 100% on the Internet for billing. It will likely be the target of future state or nonstate terrorism.

Jan. 18 2013 02:00 PM
Q from croton on hudson

Explain the difference between postal police and postal inspectors?

Jan. 18 2013 01:58 PM
Tony from New York

My mother just died and though she used email I treasure the letters and notes she sent me. When I hold them I know I'm holding the exact same item she selected and shared with me and that I will have them forever.

Jan. 18 2013 01:58 PM
Mary Beth Kooper from NYC

I agree with the caller who recommended the Smithsonian Postal Museum in DC. I went at my husband's urging, and thought it was terrific. It has great information about the history of the Postal Service, everything is presented in an interesting way, and it is great for kids.

Jan. 18 2013 01:57 PM
Kevin O'Connor from NYC

I worked on designing the lates standard for the distribution facilities. some where schedule to be 80,000 square feet in the main room.

An amazing sidebar was that the system of ceiling-hung security "tunnels" were to be replaced by CCTV - and the unions agree!

Jan. 18 2013 01:57 PM
james andrea from Brick, NJ

Why is it so frowned upon to extend one's Change of Address filing beyond a year, especially in this era of identity theft?

Jan. 18 2013 01:54 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

I'm always nervous when I see those open mail pouches, filled with packages, left unattended as the mail carrier is on his/her route, in a building etc. Aren't they concerned about theft?

Jan. 18 2013 01:50 PM
Katherine Jackson from LES

Isn't the avalanche of JUNK MAIL the main impediment to the Post Office's inefficiency? I throw out about 3/4 of the mail I get each day. Even though at some point, I registered on some official site that I didn't want to receive this stuff.

Jan. 18 2013 01:49 PM
Tom B. from upper west side

Why is it that sometimes a letter will go cross country in one day, but take one week to go across town?

Jan. 18 2013 01:48 PM
Dave from ny

My father, who died 50 yrs. ago, delivered mail in Manhattan two (?three) times/day. When did that level of service end?

Jan. 18 2013 01:41 PM
Michele from Florham Park, NJ

How does international mail work? Does the US have an agreement with each other country ensuring mail can flow freely around the world? And how do we reconcile payments for our and other postal systems when multiple countries are involved? Thanks for a fascinating topic!

Jan. 18 2013 01:37 PM
Jim from NYC

What role did political patronage have in the history of the post office?

Jan. 18 2013 01:36 PM
April from Manhattan

I support the post office and postal workers. In Caffe Reggio, another marvelous thing, the oldest coffee house in the city - dark brown walls, old paintings, gleaming samovars, I noticed a 2Oish man writing with a pen on legal pad. I talk to New Yorkers often. Find them 99.9% friendly, and learn a lot from doing so. Having written there myself, (they never throw you out), I inquired what he was writing. "A letter," he replied. "Wonderful!" I proclaimed. "Then you'll stick on a beautiful thing called a stamp and mail it. "Yes," he smiled. "Friends love seeing something personal in their mailboxes"; not just junk mail. I waxed lyrical (or tried to) about my love of postcards. How they're disappearing. Searched fotfolio and came up with nothing. There used to be a marvelous post card store on Prince St, now gone, I presume, as is another in my home town, Chapel HIll, NC, as good, and as gone. I showed some women on the elevator in my building a pc of two cops leaning over the viewer ominously with billy clubs. Below, "It's a dick thing. You wouldn't understand." Great, they said. Keep up the tradition. I'm 67, outta here soon. Wish I'd told them You restart the tradition. Photographer friends could sell some. There are a few, new interesting ones of NYC. Not the usual. I buy them at a corner store. Barnes and Noble sells fewer all the time. I didn't like seeing a link to a book on WNYC and getting, which has closed all bookstores in the country and city. The New Yorker does the same. Leonard, interview the guy who wrote the Times story on how much electronics like this computer and cell phones, I pads, etc, use. There's nothing green about them. The Times also had an article on how nasty, usually sociable country people get online. (Just like everywhere else.) I wanted to move to NM and live in a little house at the end of a dirt road. People drive their trucks to the PO Boxes to socialize every day at sunset. Too blind now to drive. Cell phone towers are helping along bird extinctions. Buy stamps online. Post letters. Make your friends happy! Bev in Newfoundland is still ecstatic about a card from the folk art museum that lights up when you punch the square.

Jan. 18 2013 01:36 PM
Laura from UWS

Fun fact:
(pasted from Wikipedia)
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

This phrase was a translation by Prof. George H. Palmer, Harvard University, from an ancient Greek work of Herodotus describing the Persian system of mounted postal carriers c. 500 B.C. The inscription was added to the building by William Mitchell Kendall of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, the building's architects. It derives from a quote from Herodotus' Histories, referring to the courier service of the ancient Persian Empire:
It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.
—Herodotus, Histories (8.98) (trans. A.D. Godley, 1924)

Jan. 18 2013 01:36 PM
Steve from Manhattan

When did surliness become part of the required training for postal employees? Are postal employees tested on a regular basis to make sure they move no faster than a snail on an iceberg? Does every postal employee get a standard 3-hour break per every hour of work?

Jan. 18 2013 01:35 PM

Move to repeal he GOP/FEDEX law that requires that USPS to prepay pensions. There are more things that need to be done, but it's a start.

Jan. 18 2013 12:47 PM
warren from Somerset, NJ

Is the USPS prohibited from selling advertising on its vehicles? I cringe at the thought of mail trucks adorned with dead roaches hawking the local exterminator's services, but if that's what it takes to help keep the USPS solvent, I'll get used to it.

Jan. 18 2013 12:28 PM

Post office, even on the ropes, pulls so much clout on Capitol Hill, and continues to have so many incredible resources.

Never could understand why it doesn't go into other business areas -- banking, insurance and telecom services come to mind -- this has long been the norm in Japan and other countries. It can't be fear of competition's lobbyists? Not with the powerful argument that Fedex and UPS proved that if anything, USPS creates markets more than it captures them -- and that, unlike Verizon and ATT, USPS is a fully domestic company.

Jan. 18 2013 12:22 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

There are two Harrisons in New Jersey (Hudson and Gloucester counties) and similiar duplications in other states. Before ZIP codes, how did the post office know which town the mail was going to?

Jan. 18 2013 07:19 AM

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