In Isabella Alden’s novel Twenty Minutes Late, young Caroline Bryant mistakenly takes a wrong train and ends up in a strange city far from home. Alone and afraid, she finds temporary shelter in the home of kindly Dr. Forsythe and his daughter Dorothy.
Meanwhile, Caroline’s family anxiously awaits her return. Her brother Ben meets every train at the station, hoping Caroline will be on it; and Caroline’s mother and sister Daisy watch the mail for a letter from Caroline, even as they prepare a celebratory meal to welcome her home:
And now it was nearing the hour when she ought in all reasonableness to be expected, if the day was to bring her. It had been a long, nervous one to get through with. The little family watched for the ten and three o’clock mails, half uncertain whether to hope for or to fear a letter; but when none arrived their hopes grew strong; even the mother allowed her heart to say, “The dear child must surely be coming today.”
Ben had announced, as he dashed in to report no letter in the three o’clock mail, that he should not come home again until he brought Line with him. “I shall go straight to the station from the office,” he announced gleefully; “and as soon as our four feet can bring us you may expect to see us walk in. Have your nose at the window-pane, Daisylinda, for Line will want to see it the first thing.”
When Isabella wrote that the family “watched for the ten and three o’clock mails,” she gave us a hint that the Bryant family lived in a rather large town themselves.
Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893; at that time the United States Post Office provided “person-to-person delivery” of mail in most major cities.
“Person-to-Person delivery” meant that mail carriers delivered mail into their customers’ hands . . . literally. If a customer didn’t answer the carrier’s knock, ring or whistle, the carrier kept the customer’s mail in his satchel until the next trip.
By 1914 city mail carriers spent up to an hour a day waiting at doors, trying to complete person-to-person deliveries. That changed in 1923, when all city customers were required to provide mail slots or receptacles in order to receive mail.
Mail was delivered Monday through Saturday. The number of daily deliveries varied by city.
In 1905 letter carriers employed at New York City’s main post office made nine daily deliveries to businesses and homes.
By contrast, customers in St. Paul, Minnesota received mail once a day, depending on which area of the city they resided.
With that kind of delivery schedule, it wasn’t unusual for local mail to be delivered from one part of the city to another within hours of being sent.
Replies to letters traveled at the same speed. “By return mail” was an often used phrase—especially in business letters—requesting an immediate response in time for the next scheduled delivery that day. (Miss Webster used the phrase in Chapter 23 of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant.)
Although the number of daily deliveries in large cities changed over the years, the U.S. Postal Service maintained this hectic delivery pace until the 1950s, when they finally limited the number of deliveries in residential areas to one per day “in the interest of economy.” For the most part, multiple daily deliveries to businesses ended in the 1970s.
As you read Isabella’s stories, you’ll see that some of her characters wrote quick letters that they wanted to have “ready for the early mail.”
Other times her characters listened for the postman’s whistle, which signaled the arrival of “the morning mail,” or “the ten o’clock mail,” or even “the next mail.”
Isabella’s novels and short stories are little testaments to the fact that there was once a time when the U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, bills, newspapers, greeting cards, catalogs, and advertisements with impressive speed and accuracy—without the aid of Zip Codes, automation, and computers.
What do you think? Do you know anyone who works for the U.S. Postal Service? How would you like your mail carrier to personally hand-deliver your mail to you?
You can read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below: