Going Postal

The sad financial state of the U.S. Postal Service has not only prompted repeated postal stamp increases but also accelerated post office closings due to population shifts, decreases in revenue from declining mail volume and increasing expenses.

Johnson City, NY "Scenes of Postal Service, local industries and other activities typical of the community" painted by Frederick Knight (1937).

I am reminded of the colorful artwork that covered the walls of the small post offices where I grew up.  In an article entitled Off The Wall: New Deal Post Office Murals, Patricia Raynor wrote:  “throughout the United States—on post office walls large and small—are scenes reflecting America’s history and way of life.  Post offices built in the 1930s during [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s New Deal were decorated with enduring images of the ‘American scene.’  During this time government-created agencies supported the arts in unprecedented ways.  Post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts, established in 1934, and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. “

Waverly, NY "Spanish Hill and the Early Inhabitants of the Vicinity" painted in 1939 by Musa McKim.

Unlike other New Deal programs, the Treasury Section was not a relief program. Instead, mural contracts were awarded based on national and regional art competitions. Only the best artists were selected for mural projects in post offices across the country.  While these murals provide a colorful record of this era, the decline in the Post Office’s fortunes means that many post office murals (and other art) have vanished over the years and others are in need of repair.

As a young boy (and, I have to admit, as an adult) it never dawned on me when in the local post office buying stamps, mailing a letter or picking up a parcel to look up and get a full-color representation of American history from the perspective of the depression and World War II eras.  The murals I included in this article come from post offices in upstate New York (courtesy of jimmywayne’s photostream on flickr) but there are representative murals across the country and U.S. territories.   Modernization has made an attempt to make the post office more efficient (with limited success),

Cortland, NY relief entitled "Valley of the Seven Hills" installed in 1943 by Ryah Ludins. This relief is actually painted wood--much like a puzzle.

but the old, friendly local post office, like railroad stations and lighthouses, will be relegated to general decay with an occasional attempt at preservation.

The next time that you find yourself off the beaten track and come across an old Post Office, especially one built in the 1930’s or 1940’s, take a moment and peak inside.  You may find an unexpected treat: a disappearing part of the “American scene.”

On the James Farley Post Office in New York City is the inscription “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”   I’m betting that financial insolvency will do it.