Yet despite the changes that have come to the system in recent decades, and the carping about rising postage, slow service, or overpaid workers, the U.S. Post Office as place and institution in the local community – whether remote rural outpost or big-city neighborhood branch – is still, even today, a much-loved part of the American scene.
And over the years, in the nation’s cultural tableau and social register, the post office has been portrayed fondly as a valued place and integral part of the community.
Take, for example, how the Saturday Evening Post magazine portrayed a local post office scene on one of its covers from August 26, 1950. This rendering, shown at right, by artist Stevan Dohanos (1907- 1994), is titled “Coastal Post Office.” It portrays the “Menemsha Post Office” – an actual place on Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts.Dohanos depicts this post office as something of a busy community hub in 1950, with people coming and going. A line of patrons is queued up, extending out through the entrance doorway, each person awaiting his or her turn at the postal services window. Outside, a local artist has set up a display of one of his paintings, being admired by two onlookers. A couple of other locals are simply biding their time at the front of the building, one leaning on a cane, and another siting on the porch.
A close-up portion of Dohanos’ painting displayed at left reveals a bit more detail about the postal patrons and the services being offered — a woman reading her mail on the way out; signs in the post office window announcing, “Skiffs Rented” and “Home Baked Goods,” and another higher up for a local “bake” of some kind on “Friday.” True to form, and as suggested by Dohanos in this rendering, the thousands of local post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were active community hubs — and many remain so today. Thousands of post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were and still are active community hubs. Then and now, they have been and continue to be important gathering places and information centers, offering multiple services beyond just the mail, also as Dohanos relayed of Menemsha in 1950.
Those were surely the halcyon days of the U.S. postal system; a time when letter writing, mail, and the local post office were all a more central part of everyday American life. Yet still today, the U.S. Post Office system is a major player in American communities and the American economy. In 2010 it had revenues of $67 billion, which if it were a private company, would place it at roughly No. 29 on the Fortune 500 list. The U.S. post office system has more domestic locations – i.e., some 31,800 post offices – than Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined. And despite the system’s current financial woes and the rapidly changing nature of information culture, the long-standing community place known as the local post office is still a welcomed and valued presence in many communities.Artist Stevan Dohanos, meanwhile, were he alive today, might be pleased to know that the Menemsha Post Office – which is actually located in the town of Chilmark, Massachusetts on the southern end of Martha’s Vineyard Island – appears to be still operating today as a combination grocery story and Postal Service substation. It’s open for business mid-May thru mid-September, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The structure, shown at left, appears somewhat differently than it did in the time Dohanos did his rendering more than 60 years ago, but the resemblance is still there. A story about its local operation and one of its long-time postmasters and store owners appears as a link in “Sources” below. It is not known, however, if the Menemsha Post Office is on the latest list of targeted post office closings.Another post office rendering by Stevan Dohanos for The Saturday Evening Post appeared on the cover of the magazine’s December 13, 1947 issue. This one, entitled “Rural Post Office at Christmas,” shown at right, depicts a wintry scene with a rural resident, likely a farmer, who has parked his truck out front with a cow riding in back and a dog in the cab. The farmer is carrying several packages – Christmas presents, no doubt – to the entrance of the red brick post office building. The overhead sign at the building’s entrance says “Post Office, Georgetown.” It is believed the model for this rendering was the actual Georgetown, Connecticut post office which in those years was located on North Main Street in that town from about 1920 to sometime in the 1950s, when it then moved to a new location.
A somewhat crisper portion of this Dohanos painting, displayed below, reveals a bit more detail in the scene. A sign on the ground at the corner of the post office building features a Santa Claus on the move with mail sack over his shoulder, also bearing the seasonal admonition: “Don’t Delay, Mail Today.” Through the doorway, an older man in a white shirt can be seen, likely the postmaster waiting to help with the packages. Behind him, through the doorway, rows of postal boxes can be scene, and through the window, tacked to the wall, are various notices and announcements. Prints of this particular Dohanos painting – both in its Saturday Evening Post cover form and as the painting by itself – can be found for sale online. The painting used for the Saturday Evening Post cover was offered for sale at Sothebys in March 2010 with an estimated price of between $15,000 and $20,000.At the Saturday Evening Post, Stevan Dohanos – along with J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell – was one of the magazine’s most prolific and popular cover artists, doing more than 100 covers there as well as others for story composition.
Dohanos also worked for Esquire and Medical Times magazines and provided advertising art for Caterpillar, Four Roses Whiskey, Maxwell House coffee, Pan Am airlines, Cannon Towels, Olin Industries, John Hancock Insurance, and others. In addition, Dohanos illustrated WWII posters, did Christmas Seal art, film art for White Christmas, and also wall murals for a number of federal buildings from West Virginia to the Virgin Islands.Another Dohanos rendering of post office activity in the American community came on the cover of the February 21, 1953 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Entitled “Wanted Posters,” the scene shows a group of three young boys in their cowboy attire, complete with hats and six-shooter guns, looking up at the latest FBI wanted posters on a wall in the post office lobby. The “most wanted” posters have been regular fare in many post office lobbies for decades, and have typically included unflattering mug shots of the nation’s most notorious criminals. The boys in this rendering appear somewhat in awe of what they are viewing and reading. They have apparently taken a break from their play, and wandered into the free and open lobby of the local post office, deciding to take a look at the posted information on the nation’s real criminal element. They are not likely contemplating a try for the reward money, but perhaps they may add to their play fantasy by what they read. And who knows, maybe one of them might even be inspired to go into criminal justice work. But surely such cold and stark “money-on-your-head” public postings must have helped dissuade the young play outlaws that this was no real life for them. Meanwhile, the postal worker at the stamp window in this scene is watching the boys with seemingly amused approval. The FBI’s “most wanted” poster program came about after a reporter for the International News Service asked the FBI in 1950 for the names and descriptions of the “toughest guys” the Bureau wanted to capture. The resulting story generated so much publicity and had so much appeal that then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program. The program at post offices, however, has done its share, as at least 14 of the “Ten Most Wanted” FBI criminals between 1950 and 1999 were apprehended as the result of folks recognizing the criminals from postings they saw at their local post offices.
Mailmen & The MailOther Saturday Evening Post covers by Stevan Dohanos featuring postal themes includes his “Mailman” cover for the May 13th, 1944 edition. This illustration shows an umbrella-covered mailman slogging through an early spring rain making his appointed rounds, bulging mailbag in tow. And today, more than 60 years later, there are thousands of letter carriers that continue to make their daily rounds, rain or shine.
The U.S. Postal Service currently has something on the order of 570,000 full-time workers, making it the country’s second largest employer. All of these folks are not letter carriers, or course, as many work in various other parts of the mail system. Still, only Wal-Mart employs more people in the U.S. than the Postal Service. And the U.S. mail system still handles an enormous amount of “product.”
As of 2010, the U.S. Postal Service was delivering an average 560 million pieces of mail each day; more than 170 billion annually, accounting for about 40 percent of all global mail. However, in recent years, the composition of the U.S. mail bag has been changing in major ways. In the late 1970s, for example, Congress prevailed upon the Postal Service to allow private companies to carry letters needing urgent delivery. As a result, Federal Express and the United Parcel Service (UPS) built enormously valuable businesses on what was once Post Office turf. Today, UPS and FedEx have respectively 53 and 32 percent of the American express and ground-shipping market, while the Postal Service has about 15 percent.Then came e-mail in the 1990s, which has since devastated first-class mail – the primary funder of most U.S. mail operations and the Postal Service’s most profitable form of mail. With e-mail’s ascendancy, “old-fashioned,” physical-form letter-writing declined fairly dramatically, pushing first-class mail volume way down, declining from 103.7 billion pieces in 2001 to 78.2 billion pieces in 2010.
By 2005, junk mail had surpassed first-class mail for the first time. Yet junk mail, per piece, is only a third as valuable as a first-class letter. And junk mail rises and falls with the vagaries of the economy. Recently in the U.S., when times were flush with booming real estate sales and easy credit, banks deluged mailboxes with mortgage deals and credit-card offers. But when the recession hit in 2006-2010, total mail volume plunged 20 percent.
Stamp CollectingBack at the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, artist Stevan Dohanos did another postal-related cover illustration, this one depicting a father and son engaged in stamp collecting, shown at right. Stamp collecting then and now, is a fairly huge global enterprise. There are some 200 million stamp collectors world wide, 25 million of those in the U.S. The first U.S. postage stamps were authorized by Congress in 1847, with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington appearing on some of the earliest known issues in July 1847. Commemorative stamps have also been issued in the U.S. since 1893, when a set of 16 were issued to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World (1492-1892). Those were $1 stamps and the first one depicted a scene entitled “Isabella pledging her jewels” — to finance Columbus’s first expedition. Since then the U.S. commemorative and postage stamp universe has expanded broadly to include many different categories of stamps along with collectors who partake of them — stamps of presidents, statespersons, and politicians; stamps of famous places, historic events, and famous battles; stamps of birds and other wildlife; stamps of sports figures, film stars, and celebrities of all stripes; and more. Among notable stamp collectors have been, for example, Franklin Roosevelt, who also designed several American commemorative stamps while he was U.S. President. Libertarian author Ayn Rand revived her childhood interest in stamps to become an avid collector in later life. And even some rock stars such as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, and John Lennon of The Beatles, were childhood stamp collectors.
Stevan Dohanos’ paintings today can be found in the collections of the Avery Memorial of Hartford, The Cleveland Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Yet for millions of Americans there is still something of the Stevan Dohanos and Saturday Evening Post imagery and vitality that survives in today’s real world postal system – and a longing among many that something like it should survive into the future. But how to do that has been the major problem facing Congress and country in recent years, as a variety of bills proposing major changes have been offered and debated. And as this is written in September 2011, more than 3,600 U.S. Post Offices across the land have been slated for shut down.The U.S. postal system it would seem — as Stevan Dohanos’ historic renderings remind us – is about more than just money. The post office, especially at the community level, is also about social connection – people-to-people and community-to-government. Like Facebook and Twitter, the local post office is a kind of social networking – the actual on-the-ground physical network that is out there working every day, connecting people to government, or at least extending that opportunity. These brick-and-mortar places then, are a kind of connective national tissue. Post offices still help to “bind a nation together” – words from the founding language and Congressional debate to justify the system. So what sense is there in tearing apart this connective tissue? Those American small towns and remote rural regions now targeted for post office closings will surely become future assets; places that can and will absorb future growth. Why disconnect them now?
Paring down far-flung networks and centralizing services may seem an efficient accounting at the moment. Yet if it costs the nation citizen connectedness today and imposes a future capital replacement cost tomorrow, isn’t that really a false economy? Rather, if a network of connectedness exists out there now, why take it apart? Why dismantle something that connects people to their government, is in place now, and can serve the future?Would it not be better to rebuild and repurpose this network – or even expand or combine it with other government services, old and new – but at all costs, keeping it in place? Why not refurbish these places and bolster their networking capability by adding community services – from worker training counseling and housing assistance, to energy conservation outreach and computer training? Surely with all that the government is doing now – or should be doing – to help American communities and lift local economies, there ought to be a way to keep and revitalize today’s national network of local postal locations.
Additional stories at this website on magazine history and magazine cover art include, for example: “FDR & Vanity Fair,” (cover art) “Murdoch’s NY Deals” (New York magazine history), “Remington’s West” and “Christy Mathewson” (John Hancock magazine ads), and “Rockwell & Race” (cover art).
Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 29 September 2011
Last Update: 5 October 2014
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “The U.S. Post Office, 1950s & Today”,
PopHistoryDig.com, September 29, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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Sandra Taylor Smith and Mark K. Christ, “Arkansas Post Offices & Treasury Dept.’s Section Art Program, 1938-1942,” Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 1500 Tower Building, 323 Center Street, Little Rock, AR 72201.
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