In Herman Melville’s classic story, Bartleby the Scrivener, the narrator reflects on the troubled character of Bartleby, wondering if his alienated clerk’s peculiar despondency resulted from years of working at the dead letter division of the post office. After all, imagine spending days sorting through correspondence that almost never finds its destination. Think about all the human connections that are never made: messages of love, hope, forgiveness, affection, advice, and financial reward – all undeliverable! For Bartleby, a nineteenth century fictional character, the dead letter office was no doubt a depressing, unhopeful place. But for our contemporary United States Postal Service, the handling of these dead letters makes for serious yet optimistic business at mail recovery centers.
From “Dead Letter Office” to “Mail Recovery Center”
In 1992, the United States Postal Service adopted the more politically correct name “mail recovery center” to refer to what had been gloomily known as the dead letter office. Besides giving a positive spin to the concept of a dead letter office by focusing on the mail that is actually recoverable, the other change in the name – a shift from “letter” to “mail” – reminds us that they handle all kinds of packages. Parcels big and small make their way through the mail recovery centers every year alongside ubiquitous standard letter envelopes.
Today, the cities of Atlanta, Saint Paul, and San Francisco are home to the USPS’s three major mail recovery centers, where specialized staff take on near-detective roles, working at a breakneck pace to identify what resulted in dead letters. Their goal is to return potentially valuable mail to its original senders or to forward it on to its intended recipients.
According to the USPS website (www.usps.com), the two MRCs “processed approximately 1.3 million parcels and 73.1 million letters” during 2004. That same year, they “returned a total of 6.1 million pieces of mail to their rightful owners.” Although the successfully recovered mail represents only a fraction of the so-called dead letters they receive, it’s clear that the mail recovery centers are busy places of reconnection and redirection. The staggering logistics are utterly fascinating.
How does a piece of mail become a “dead letter”?
In short, a letter or package becomes “dead” when neither its sender nor its recipient can be identified, most often because the delivery address is incorrect or absent and the return address is also incorrect or absent. How can people create so many would-be dead letters? Here are some examples:
· Senders use an incorrect recipient address and omit a return address (VERY common)
· Senders use the correct recipient address, but that person is deceased and the return address was omitted.
· Children write letters to fictional characters like the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or Tooth Fairy.
· Items are mistakenly dropped into mail boxes with other mail.
· Items not intended to be mailed are mistakenly picked up by postal workers.
· Something happens to obscure the legibility of otherwise valid addresses. (Imagine ink smeared beyond recognition thanks to rain or some other menacing factor.)
Whenever a local post office identifies a dead letter, it is sent to the nearest mail recovery center (Saint Paul, San Francisco, or Atlanta). Oddly enough, even though the official term has been “mail recovery center” for around fifteen years, lots of seasoned postal workers are resistant to change and scrawl “dead letter office” on the ill-fated envelopes and packages. Some postal officials begrudgingly admit that the old term may never disappear, meaning that “dead letters” can live on forever – sort of.
What happens to these dead letters at the mail recovery centers?
The first step in handling a large volume of undeliverable letters (not parcels) is to scan them for items of value. As much as the USPS would love to redirect every single dead letter successfully, the reality is that mail without a detectable item of value is not worth the resources necessary to redirect it. An automated scanning system looks for cash, checks, and important documents (often identified based on the printing method, ink, etc.). These potentially valuable letters are segregated while the rest are destroyed by giant shredders. Workers then review the contents of the chosen envelopes (and the envelopes themselves) to see if a correct address can be identified. Whenever possible, the mail recovery center will bring the letter back to life by specially packaging it and reintroducing it to the world of active mail with no additional fee. They consider it a courtesy.
In the case of packages, which are not scanned, workers actually open up the large envelopes and parcels to see if they can identify the intended recipient or errant sender. They will forward the package when possible, and sometimes they will even contact people by phone to track down a rightful owner. It all depends on the value of the discovered items. If the chattels cannot be forwarded, they are sent to auction for bulk purchase by flea market vendors and others who will buy bundles of similar items and sort through them on their own. These regularly scheduled auctions are especially popular in Atlanta, as that facility handles the greatest volume of dead parcels.
Under some circumstances, the mail recovery center may catalog and temporarily warehouse an item that is clearly “valuable” but not otherwise re-sellable, like an urn of ashes, a personalized piece of jewelry, or anything they suspect someone may call about. That’s right – if you think something of value was lost in the mail, you can phone the dead letter staff to see what they haven’t tossed or auctioned yet. Just contact your local post office and ask to be connected with the appropriate mail recovery center for your region. Be prepared, of course, to describe your missing item in detail.
Do they really find unusual items at mail recovery centers?
You name it, and they’ve probably seen it at least once in the dead letter zone: live rodents, clarinets, boxes of rocks, nude photographs, cocaine and other drugs, chocolate chip cookies (which are sadly discarded for safety reasons), ugly snow globes, preserved animal brains, high school yearbooks, weapons, and the most ironic of all: a stamp collector’s album of historic US stamps.
A Final Plea from the MRC
They’d like to remind you to please, please, please include a return address on everything you send! If only everyone did this, they’d see half as many dead letters!