writing prompt

I have always been intrigued by the idea of the dead letter office. All those stories that went missing. Before you remind me that some large proportion of those letters are bills and advertisements, let me say: I don’t care.
Dead Letter Office
You can see by this photo that the post office has been dealing with undeliverable mail for a long time. There’s no date on the photo, but based on the rest of the series taken in the same setting and the clothing, it looks to be turn of the 20th century. If you really study the photo all kinds of interesting details pop out. For example: a fence separating the female office workers from… what? The supervisor (male, of course) looks very young, compared to some of the women. And the woman in the foreground who is looking at the camera. She’s slightly out of focus.

My urge is to find out all I can about the way the dead letter office functioned. How were these women trained? How much money did they earn, and what were their hours? Were some of them bilingual? Because it’s likely that a large proportion of the mail was not in English.

Imagine reading letter after letter that never found the person it was written for. Someone in Poland writing to a new immigrant in Manhattan, asking when the promised boat ticket is coming. A woman in New Mexico writing to a brother in Brooklyn to say that their mother is dying, and she’s asking for him. The possibilities are endless, and so are the way these stories are perceived by the women who open and read them.

This would be a fantastic setting for a mystery.

5 Replies to “writing prompt”

  1. That would be interesting – I too have often thought about all that is lost in the dead mail office.

    The person looking straight at the camera looks like a male to me, he is wearing a tie and what looks like a waistcoat. If that is the case it is interesting that the women all have their heads down and working while the men are looking at the camera.


  2. Diane, I think I see blurry hair piled up on top of the person’s head… and a necktie was not too unusual for a professional woman of that era. I have more than one family photo of great-aunts (mostly schoolteachers) wearing what looks like a man’s tie and in a couple of cases a very mannish jacket.

  3. Can you find more pictures of Dead Letter Offices then? We need more examples!

    There are more men in the “women’s” area. One has his back is to the camera; he’s sitting down at a table or desk; he has a coat on. A seated man is to the left with his back almost against the fence, also with a coat. Another man is to the right of the original man. He has a coat on also, and is sitting or stooping. I can see his ears; so I conclude he’s a man, not a woman. Behind the fence is a man, sitting and with a coat. A little further back is another seated with coat. There’s one light-topped person back there. I’m supposing all the men wear coats, and light tops are all women.

    Near the original man, and repeated several times is something hanging from the ceiling. I think those are electric lights. If so, this dates after electrification of offices.

    Fences inside buildings, even now, keep valuable or duty-paid items separate from everything else. Maybe the fence has to do with value vs not-so-valuable. More! We need more pictures! This is fascinating.

  4. Like the raised eyebrow of the woman looking at the camera. The man standing seems distracted by the camera indicated by the woman handing him a letter and him not noticing. Wonder why she wants him to see the letter? The 8 women center would make great characters!

  5. 1 pincushion correction,
    2 barrel distortion corrections, cleans up that pic loads! If ya just HAVE ta have more details :P Nother thing I noticed in this picture was how busy everyone was! ..cept a couple of the men, probably “supervising” I imagine.

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