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Railroad Mail Cars

Railway Post Office Clerks Onboard a Mail Car
Railway post office clerks sorting mail aboard a mail car.

Railroad Mail Cars Moved the Mail.

The Railway Mail Service revolutionized the way mail was processed by sorting mail aboard moving trains. Railway mail service began in 1832, but grew slowly until the Civil War. In 1862, mail was sorted en route, as a train moved between two points. The idea proved to be exceptionally successful, and the postal service decentralized its operations.

Instead, it concentrated on sorting much of the growing volume of mail while it was being carried on the nation's rail lines. This new method of sorting the mail was developed just when railroads began to crisscross the nation on a regular basis. The service grew as railroads came to dominate America from the end of the 19th century through World War II.

By the early 1900s, railroads were critical to postal operations. Like Union Station in Washington, D.C., located adjacent to the City Post Office Building, the Post Office Department ordered that all new main post offices in large cities be built as near as possible to the principal railroad station.

Railway Postal Clerks Sorted the Mail.

Railway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service's employees. Their jobs were exhausting and dangerous, their entrance tests demanding, a passing grade was considered 97%. They were required to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour. To ensure that the clerks' skills didn't rust, they were tested from time to time to ensure they could maintain that pace.

These clerks had remarkable camaraderie, helping each other out as needed. As one retired clerk put it, "nobody sat down until everyone was finished." The clerks adopted a fascinating shorthand language for their work, including the term "nixie" for an unsortable or misaddressed letter and "bum" for a damaged or empty mail sack. Before leaving the station, one clerk might yell "throw the bums out," meaning to toss out the empty mailbags.

Another could yell, "Seventy-six in the house.", noting that the mail from Train #76 was on board. Since there was no time to read an entire mail label, clerks shortened them into nonsense phrases. Thus, the announcement of mail from the "New York and Pittsburgh Train 11, two, from Madison Square Station, New York, New York," transformed into the cry "From the Madhouse with a two!".

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