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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.




DEAD LETTER OFFICE

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Benjamin Franklin, revered hero of the American Revolution and statesman is remembered for starting the postal service in the United States. He could have hardly imagined the problem which arose decades later. During the CIVIL WAR, hundreds of thousands of young men in uniform wrote letters to loved ones back home. Many of the soldiers, however, were poorly educated or had never addressed a letter. Undecipherable envelopes were collected and sent to the Dead Letter Office (DLO).

In 1825, the Dead Letter Office (DLO) in Washington, D.C., had been established specifically to investigate undeliverable mail and make it possible to forward it to its intended recipients. DLO clerks, granted by Congress the exclusive ability to open mail, examined its contents for further clues on its destination. During the mid-19th century, most of the dozen or so DLO clerks were women or retired clergymen. These people, it was believed, possessed superior moral character and could therefore be trusted.

Advertisements, circulars, or letters that could not be forwarded could be destroyed. One exception was made--Civil War soldiers’ photographs. While these photos could have been destroyed, they never were. DLO officials continued their attempts to reunite them with their intended recipients long after the war ended. The photos were kept in a portfolio in a Post Office storeroom until Third Postmaster General Alexander Zevely, who served from 1859-1869, decided to display them.

The Dead Letter Office Museum at the time housed a combination of items representing both the Post Office Department’s history and some of the more curious objects that passed through the DLO each year. These included trinkets, pistols, various bottles and boxes, and even a skull. The museum, an oddity and a popular tourist attraction, Zevely hoped bring more attention to the soldiers' images. At his request, the pictures were attached to panels with brass clips in groups of 36 images, or four rows of nine images each, and numbered with numerals in red ink. Museum visitors could scan the panels seeking a brother, a husband, a father, a neighbor or a sweetheart, or even themselves.

When a familiar face was discovered, a loved one would claim it by number. A clerk removed the image from the board and wrote in its place the date of its removal and the name and location of the person receiving the image. On June 17, 1874, Mr. F. Poplain, for example, claimed the photo of Lieutenant S. Roderick of the 19th Iowa Infantry, according to an extant panel. On October 16, 1902, Edward Marsh of the 10th New York Battery claimed a photo of himself--40 years after he had placed it in the mail. While it is impossible to know how many of these "reunions" occurred; some estimates put the number as high as 2,000.

The Dead Letter Office also advertised descriptive lists of the photographs in newspapers and journals of the GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC (G. A. R.). In the early 1890s, the photographs and panels were cleaned and bound into an album, one panel per page. Assembled in this way, these photographs could be easily transported. The Dead Letter Office took the opportunity to exhibit the album at world’s fair exhibitions across the country.

In 1911, the Dead Letter Office Museum closed. The album was kept in the Dead Letter Office at the Post Office Building for a time, still available for the then-infrequent observer. By the 1930s, it was placed in storage. In the 1940s, the government decided to free up storage space and the album was divided and sold. Some of it was housed in museums. Many more pictures turned up on the collector’s market with their tell-tale red numerals and markings where the brass clips had once secured them to them to the walls of the Dead Letter Office Museum.