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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Letter Opener: 1916

Letter Opener: 1916

1916. Washington, D.C. "Post Office Department, opening machine." If you have sharp eyes and don't mind a little sleuthing, there is an interesting story to be gleaned here. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.

On Shorpy:
Today's Top 5

Not a Post Office

An "opening machine" at the post office seems a bit odd. Shouldn't they be NOT opening people's mail? Certainly not on the scale that requires an automated process for it.

This was not a post office. It was a chain letter scam organization which enticed it's victims to send in money in exchange for gifts. The opening machine facilitated the process by batch opening the enormous volume of mail received.

[This is indeed the Post Office in Washington. Did you read the comments below? They explain why the P.O. is opening this mail. - Dave]

All Postmasters are hereby directed to withdraw from the mails all matter of any kind addressed to this concern and return the same to the sender, where known, and where not known to send such matter to the Division of Dead Letters for proper disposition. Wherever possible, Postmasters should decline to receive such matter for mailing.

I am curious

I know, this old. I just got back from Australia where I had no internet connection and am playing catchup. But I really want to know how one gets the 72 dpi resolution from this image. The only screen capture I know of is when you hit ctrl and print screen and then paste in Photoshop. That does produce a poorer image and I am not sure why you would do that. I save the files to my desktop and then open them in Photoshop to get the best details. Am I missing something?

[A screen grab should give exactly the same quality image as saving the jpeg locally. Although with a capture you might not see the entire image. - Dave]

Take a screen capture ... open it in Photoshop

Can anyone (Dave perhaps?) explain to me if this procedure makes sense? I just download the picture, save it, and open in it the "Windows viewer for images", then I can magnify as many times as I want to. I can see no difference with the other, more complicated, procedure. Do I miss something there?

[A "screen capture" might involve fewer keystrokes if you already have Photoshop open. Personally I'd save the jpeg locally instead doing a screen grab. But maybe that's how Professional Graphic Designers do it. - Dave]

Mail Lady

PLEASE! Why hasn't this lass been Farked yet??? We all anxiously await.

"Straw" Man

So it is, so it is. I wish I could say I knew that, of course any idiot can see that it is paper, but I cannot. I really thought it was straw and actually wondered why there would be straw at the post office.

My stupidity is certainly more entertaining than some of the pretentious blather in this thread - I must say however, it is more fun than not having any pretentious blather.

Las Vegas


Foy -- I'm sure you were being whimsical, but the pile of "straw" under the machine is probably thin strips of folded paper being cut off the top of the envelopes. I find it really interesting that this machine is being used with such confidence of purpose when I think about my own mail and the different types of stock and sizes used. Back then there must have been a lot less variance in postal stock. If I tried to stick in a parcel with Ed McMahon's face on it, it might not cut very cleanly or bind the cutter, and definitely wouldn't fit in the receiving bin.

One thing I really love about the photo is the groove carved in the receiving bin from being fed thousands of pieces of freshly cut mail over the years. Contrast that wear with the clean appearance of the machine, and it gives me some perspective to the attention that the average worker once paid to their tools that they (typically) no longer do.

Re: I am the graphic designer

Gawd. Not to mention humorless, verbose and pretentious.

[Our motto: "Free content, and all the rope you can use!" - Dave]

I am the graphic designer

who has had the difference of opinion with Dave concerning web image resolution. Dave has chosen to include nearly one hundred of my comments in the past three months on many photos and regarding many subjects - apparently he did not consider me an idiot as long as I did not disagree with him. My posts have always been anonymous though I am a registered user; I have never commented under my identifier precisely because I sensed that it is harder to treat someone with rudeness to his/her face after having found so many comments worthwhile to the sites discussions. I didn't want to cramp his style.

Having edited my most recent comment below, which is his prerogative, I rather expect that this comment will not be included. While rudeness does not offend me, I don't find that it furthers the goal of exchange which I perceived to be the key to this excellent site.

A "discourteous" host

David was courteous enough to post your irrelevant threat of withholding your highly regarded "recommendation" to your friends.

Nobody here has a bad feeling toward anybody, including you. We don't care enough about you to be mad. This is just a great place to have a little fun after work and perhaps learn a thing or two about something that has not mattered for, oh . . . about 100 years or so. I'm not sure David is worried about his hit count on this site - I'm not speakin' fer him, I'm jus' sayin'.

By the way, I think the straw next to the machine is to soak up the blood when it slices Mrs. Doubtfire's manly fingers.

Las Vegas

Let me get this straight...

So, it's okay to visit someone's home/blog/whatever and tell the host/blogger/etc. that he is wrong and that clearly the photo he has displayed does not show something that both the host and other guests/commenters can see?

Dave consistently intrigues me with his choice of photos and entertains me with his observations about the subject matter (and, yes, about some of the comments where deserved). Thanks, Dave!

Just Don't Understand

I simply don't understand why Dave feels the need to be so rude to visitors. I've recommended this site to many friends most of whom stop visiting after explaining they couldn't deal with such a discourteous and ill-mannered host. I just don't get what being mannerless and insulting gains Dave? The fellow discussing pixel dimensions is correct; Dave is wrong. Such a shame this continually happens at such an otherwise wonderful site.

[We'd be interested to know your reasoning on pixel dimensions. - Dave]


I found it by searching for "national mail order" on the NY Times web site (archive search for the years 1915-1917). New York Timeses from before 1923 are searchable and viewable for free.

Dear Friend

Tyrone (Pa.) Daily Herald, October 25, 1916.


"Endless Chain" Scheme Is a Big Fake

Thousands of letters, each containing 10 cents, are pouring into the Minneapolis Post office daily from women in various parts of the country, who have joined in an "endless chain" scheme promoted by the so-called National Brokerage Exchange.

Federal agents are searching for officers of the "Exchange" who are wanted for using the mails to defraud. A room in a local business block, to which all the letters are addressed, was suddenly vacated three weeks ago, the authorities say.

To every woman who would send 10 cents in silver and write five friends urging them to join in the chain, the "exchange" promised a "new, 1917 model silk petticoat."

"The volume of mail for the exchange is rapidly growing," said Postmaster E.A. Purdy, "and today we received 25,000 letters, enclosing 25,000 dimes. Thousands of the letters have been returned to the writers, but a large majority carry no return marks and as a result the dead letter office is becoming clogged. Other mail channels of the local office are choked daily by the influx of mail for the "exchange."

The firm sent letters to women throughout the country informing them that, for ten cents and the names and addresses of five of their friends, they would send them a 1917 model silk petticoat. The scheme was pronounced a fraud by government officials and the mail confiscated. A number of Tyrone women were taken in by the advertisement, and some of them are now receiving back their dimes. None received petticoats.

One of the letters sent out in interest of the "Silk Skirt Brokerage" firm is as follows:

31 Woodward Ave.,
Springfield, N. Y.,
October 16, 1916.

Dear Friend --

I am sending you a copy of a letter I received yesterday. I am going to invest the 10c, are you? To introduce and advertise our Ready-to-Wear goods with the least waste of time we will give to anyone complying with the conditions here stated our 1916 Model Petticoats retailed at $4.50. Give size and color desired.

Conditions — Make five copies of this letter and mail to five friends. Then mail their names and addresses to the National Mail Order Brokerage Exchange, 520 Globe Building, Minneapolis, Minn., with 10c in silver and receive the silk petticoat without further expense. This offer is good for anyone who wishes to comply with this request. All petticoats are guaranteed.

This letter must be written the day after you receive this.

Yours truly,
Mrs. C. A. Vail.

Indeed I did!

I always click "view full size".

Take a screen capture of just the envelope at full size and see what you get when you open it in Photoshop.

Never miss the chance to treat your viewers like idiots, Dave.

[If the opportunity presents itself. Below, the "view full size" envelope. - Dave]

As a corporate graphic designer ...

illustrator and photo manipulator who retired recently after 15 years of working in Photoshop every day, I know all there is to know about dpi, lpi and pixel dimensions - my remark about 72 dpi referred only to what I have available to me on Shorpy and the inadequacy of detail on the envelope. If I had your scan from the glass negative, something I too do every day, the story would be different.

[As a corporate graphic designer, did you click "view full size"? - Dave]

More on the Scam

Hillary's link didn't reveal very much to me [updated: I'm in Australia, and it appears that book isn't available in the 'public domain' outside of the U.S. yet!], but I used it to find this New York Times article, which even reveals the same address on the letter in the photo:

[Go back to Hillary's link and read "Fraud Order Issued." It has everything in the N.Y. Times article, and more -- for instance, the nature of the scam (petticoats for 10 cents). - Dave]

New York Times, February 24, 1917

By request of the Post Office Department at Washington, D.C., Postmaster Morgan calls attention to the fraud order issued on Oct. 28, 1916, against the National Mail Order Brokerage Exchange, at 520 Globe Building, Minneapolis, Minn., of which the following is a copy:

It having been made to appear by evidence satisfactorily to me that the National Mail Order Brokerage Exchange, at 520 Globe Building, Minneapolis, Minn., is conducting a scheme for obtaining money through the mails by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises, in violation of Sections 3.929 and 4.041 of the Revised Statutes, as amended, and that communications addressed to this concern are unmailable within the meaning of Section 4 of the act of March 2, 1880, (Sec. 484, P.L. & R., 1913) all Postmasters are hereby directed to withdraw from the mails all matter of any kind addressed to this concern and return the same to the sender, where known, and where not known to send such matter to the Division of Dead Letters for proper disposition. Wherever possible, Postmasters should decline to receive such matter for mailing.

Attention is invited to this fraud order, for the reason that the Postmaster at Minneapolis, Minn., is still receiving several thousand letters daily addressed to the concern named.

Chain letter scam

The answer can be found here.

I'd heard of this before, although I didn't remember the details. No wonder the woman has a hint of a grimly smug smile on her face.

[Ding ding ding. We have a winner! Clap clap clap. Hillary, come on down! The crucial phrase was "National Mail Order." - Dave]

"Dead Letter PO"

The scribbling along the right side says "Dead Letter PO". It's backward. Flipped and rotated in Photoshop to make it legible.

A little philately?

Not much sleuthing here, but I'd have to guess a first day cover or something of the sort...

[Luck and intuition were my friends here. Not to mention "Wheel of Fortune" skills. Once you solve the riddle, the results are unambiguous. - Dave]

Second career

It's Mrs. Doubtfire after she lost her job as a nanny.

Dave, does it have something to do with that damn bucket machine?

Union dues?

Addressed to the National Mail Handlers, could this be payment of the postmens union dues? Or collective agreement votes?

Or is the post office management up to monkey business and opening it's employees mail to their union?

Gender bender

She looks like she could be a "male" mail handler. Is that it Dave?


Preston Idaho is where the film "Napoleon Dynamite" was made. A favorite movie of mine for some reason.


You've got to be pretty dynamite to figure that story out.

It's pretty obscure, Dave, and if I keep trying to figure it out, they'll lock me up because I'm Napoleon!

Do I win, Dave? I wouldn't think most folks coming to Shorpy would have any chance without cheating (and hey, I sleuthed too).

[Keep looking. Took me maybe 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary. - Dave]

Dead mail?

Could this be the D.C. Dead Letter Office? Dead letters are the only kind the Post Office is entitled to open. Interestingly, the center letter is franked as "Penalty Mail," meaning it's official U.S. Government correspondence sent free (then) of postage, instead bearing the indicia "Penalty for private use to avoid payment of postage, $300." Darned if I can find a relevant connection with Preston, Idaho.

Napoleon Dynamite

The piece of mail on the right end of the opener is either going to, coming from, or is a newsletter from Preston, Idaho, home of Napoleon Dynamite. Check the town's busy home page and watch videos of people dancing like Napoleon and a demo derby. Is that the fact we're supposed to be sleuthing out?

The only details

I can muster from the full view will only let me decipher National Mail _________ in the operator's hand ... and Preston, Idaho on another envelope. I too would wonder why mail would be opened unless it is the "dead letter" department and identification is warranted. The photos depth of field is so shallow that the woman and machine are the only things in focus. 72 dpi resolution just won't cut it, even with enhancement in Photoshop - but then why am I trying to read someone's 90+ year old mail?

[What matters is the pixel dimensions of the image. Or, more specifically, pixel dimensions of the area of interest. The image itself doesn't have "dpi," although your video display does. On the average desktop LCD, an inch of screen is 96 pixels wide -- 96 dpi. Thank you for giving my inner geek an opportunity to express himself. - Dave]

So Far

We are not being very observant. Either of what's in the photo, or the caption.

National Mail Handlers

It's mail addressed to the "National Mail Handlers" -- surprise, they were founded in 1912! Who knew!


Censorship as submitted by robcat would explain the previous post of the mailometer 1916 sealing envelopes

Postal Inspector

The letters are addressed to the US Postal Inspector.

Wartime censorship?

An "opening machine" at the post office seems a bit odd. Shouldn't they be NOT opening people's mail? Certainly not on the scale that requires an automated process for it.

My first guess was some sort of wartime censorship operation, but 1916 isn't quite wartime yet in the US.

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