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Our holdings include hundreds of glass and film negatives/transparencies that we've scanned ourselves; in addition, many other photos on this site were extracted from reference images (high-resolution tiffs) in the Library of Congress research archive. (To query the database click here.) They are adjusted, restored and reworked by your webmaster in accordance with his aesthetic sensibilities before being downsized and turned into the jpegs you see here. All of these images (including "derivative works") are protected by copyright laws of the United States and other jurisdictions and may not be sold, reproduced or otherwise used for commercial purposes without permission.

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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Miss Dead Letter: 1916

Miss Dead Letter: 1916

1916. Washington, D.C. "Miss Clara R.A. Nelson, Dead Letter Office." Another peek behind the scenes at the P.O. Remember, folks: If you must send cash in the mail, include a valid return address, otherwise Clara here ends up with a stack of orphaned $2 bills. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.

On Shorpy:
Today's Top 5


Clara Nelson died on May 12, 1963, and she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on May 17, 1963 beside her parents. A photo of her tombstone can be found here.


$2 and $5 doesn't seem like much, these days.
Keep in mind that those bills could be exchanged for gold or silver coins in 1916.

A 5 dollar gold piece of that era contains almost 1/4 oz of gold -- and is worth about $385 bucks today!

That stack represents a HUGE amount of money.

And then there's


She dressed her very best that day

Miss Nelson wore her satin blouse and her velveteen jacket --nice workmanship on those cuffs -- on the day she knew her picture would be taken. The top buttonhole is the only one she ever used on the much-beloved jacket. I wonder what colors these were. The ruffle is a wonderfully revealing feminine touch. Her hair is put up with care. She knew she wasn't naturally pretty, but she liked to feel pretty, as any woman does, and I think she rose to the occasion that day. Bravo, Miss Nelson!

Remarkable Resemblance!

Sister Mary Clara used to punch my head for miscounting in 1953 when I was in first grade and looked just like this lady. I am certain they're related and were in a conspiracy to count things and punch little boys!

Clara Nelson

Clara graduated from the Spencerian Business School (corner Ninth and D streets N.W.) in 1886. She was mentioned in the Washington Post several times, first starting in 1894 when she was listed as organist for Mount Vernon Commandary. From 1913 to 1923 she was associated with the Sunshine Home of Washington, eventually rising to the position of vice-president and superintendent. Apparently still alive in 1952, she is mentioned in the obituary of her brother, Halvor G. Nelson. I cannot find her obituary nor any information on her employment at the Dead Letter Office.

I am loving the Postal Theme on Shorpy, especially since we are fortunate to have our own retired postal worker to aid as curator. Perhaps there might someday be a 'Postal' tag?

$2 Bills

A lot of people are surprised at the existence of $2 bills. I've heard they are (or at any rate were) commonly found around race tracks. Very convenient for your basic $2 bet.

Big Bills

These appear to be the $2 and $5 bills that are showing. They don't make 'em like they used to!

46 years old and single

Our Miss Nelson was born in Detroit in November 1870 to Halvor Nelson (b Norway 1840) and Miranda S Wilson (b Geneva NY 1842, d 31 Jan 1923). She had a brother, the quaintly named Justus C. Nelson (b 1880 Washington DC).

Unfortunately I can't find any more information on our note counter (at least not without paying for it!)

Large Notes

What I wouldn't give for that stack of bills! That's a treasure nowadays.

Ah humanity!

Bartleby worked in this office, and it was bad enough even before Miss Clara showed up and took charge of the money. ...

"Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and sorting them for the flames? For by the cartload they are annually burned. ... A bank-note sent in swiftest charity: - he whom it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity: - he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death."

Waifs and Strays

Presumably, the majority of the monies that didn't make it were never claimed by their owners. I imagine the problem was exacerbated by the growth of mail order businesses at that time, with huge sums passing through your mail system. A large amount of cash must have stopped at the desks of Misses Nelsons in all major cities. Does anyone know what happened to those unclaimed monies? Did they simply head for the Treasury's coffers?

One for you, three for me

Think there's a video cam in the room recording her every move?

Makes for a good start

to the Christmas party fund!

Familiar look

Those are some bodacious eyebrows -- reminds me of my relations.

The Marx Sister

There is a strong resemblance to Groucho. Check out the eyebrows.


By today's standards, those are some runaway eyebrows!

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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