Friday, March 2, 2012

Snail mail, revisited

Dear Comrades,

When you post a letter in a roadside postbox or in a post office, you almost always know that it will reach its destination after some days. But do you know what happens to your letter once you have posted it, and how it is handled – along with many other pieces of mail  – before it is finally delivered to the recipient?

Very few of us have actually seen the whole process at work, but a permanent exhibit which opened recently at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, DC takes American people behind the scenes, re-creating the paths of letters,  parcels and other pieces of mail as they have travelled from sender to recipient over the past 200 years.

In 1808, a stagecoach carried newspapers and the latest news to people hundreds of miles away. Two hundred years later, ZIP codes (called PIN Code in India), automated sorting machines and advanced technologies have enabled the United States Postal Service to process and deliver mail to 150 million homes and businesses across the country.

A film show, forming part of the Washington display, puts visitors into the middle of a mail processing centre, surrounded by examples of automated machinery that moves mail through the system at astonishing speeds. One sees packages being tossed into mail bags, as mail clerks did in 1917. Also shown are letters being ‘keyed’ on a computerised version of a letter-sorting machine operated in 1968, and  hand-held mail devices that  scan barcodes (the striped barcodes are now used in India too on cartons and articles of daily use). Visitors to the display receive a postcard to collect cancellation marks from various eras to take away as souvenirs.

“The most commonly asked question by our visitors concerns how mail gets from somewhere else in the country to their home,” said Allen Kane, Director of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “This exhibit answers that question and shows the impressive technology that enables the Postal Service to deliver almost half of  the world’s mail.”

A special Web version of the display has been created for the benefit of people who are not able to visit the museum in person, and for those who want to share, re-live and deepen the experience gained during their personal visit.
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