Mary Rothlisberger is an artist living in Palouse, Wash., a town of about a thousand inhabitants two miles from the Idaho border. Palouse is very remote – she tells me you can’t get a direct train, airplane or bus there – but Mary travels widely for her work. I happened to meet her a few winters ago when she was participating in the Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake in 2009. At the time, she was living on the frozen lake in a structure built to resemble Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s capsized Antarctic ship, Discovery. In honor of these rugged individuals from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expedition, she spent much of the residency wearing a fake, ice-bitten cloth beard. Clearly, she has a good eye for detail.
This eye for detail has served her well while on the road. During her travels, Mary maintains a photo blog called “God Bless the USPS.” Whenever in a small town, Mary finds the post office, and snaps a shot of it. Most of the post offices aren’t the WPA mural-festooned art deco structures of romantic imagination. For the most part, they’re pretty squat, utilitarian little brick buildings, built in the 1950s or ‘60s.
Look at enough of them, though, and the monotony starts to fall away; especially in more populous small towns, you start to pick out tiny, worthwhile modernist flourishes, details imbued with whatever the bureaucratic equivalent of whimsy is: a bit of turquoise window paneling or limestone façade here, a geometric embellishment or false wall there. They are reassuringly built little buildings.
In smaller towns, of course, that reassuring quality seems more and more misplaced. The post offices can seem increasingly ghostly.
“It’s so insane to roll through a town with only 72 people now, and it’s still got a wall full of old metal P.O. boxes inside, more boxes than people that live in the town,” Mary tells me over the phone. “What’s happening to those? Where are they going?” She uses the post office almost daily in Palouse, and she never fails to marvel at how efficient and how inexpensive the process of getting a single piece of paper across the country seems: “It’s a really remarkable human machine.”
When I tell her I don’t think many people equate the post office with efficiency, she sounds almost personally offended. “There was a time when there were more letter carriers in America than soldiers,” she counters. “I love imagining a time when that was the case, when that type of precision and discipline was in service of people talking to each other.”
Looking through the post offices in Mary’s USPS project (including many in Greater Minnesota, in places like Sleepy Eye and Hamburg), I am struck by how much the small-town post offices resemble their urban city-mouse counterparts. One of my favorite things about the topography of the Twin Cities is that the commercial districts that sit on old streetcar lines – Bloomington, Como, Grand, Minnehaha, Chicago, Johnson, Broadway – have the feelings of a small-town main street. The post office stations that sit in each ZIP code have a similar flavor to the small-town post offices in Mary’s photos. They have that same blocky, reassuring quality.
I’m also struck by how quickly I tend to blow past these buildings while out in the city, and after going through the wide variety of post offices Mary captures, I feel more conscious about paying closer attention to them. On a recent long weekend afternoon, I took a walking tour of three stations near Lake Street, starting with the Lake Street station (actually on 31st) that serves the 55408 ZIP code near 35W, then my neighborhood station in Powderhorn, serving 55407, and finally, the Minnehaha Station, serving 55406.
Powderhorn is my favorite, with that white concrete geometric pattern taking up most of the front. All three buildings are all quite similar, all brick and concrete, and in fact share one common characteristic: The front of each is decorated by lathe-cut metal lettering reading UNITED STATES POST OFFICE, with the name of the station and the ZIP code. The typeface is instantly recognizable as some genus of mid-century modern: close to Futura, or something like Kabel, but not quite either. This typeface seems to have been standard on nearly all post offices built during and after World War II.
I did some poking around on typographical forums to see if I could identify the exact typeface, but couldn’t find an answer; even the typography nerds seem stymied. This is echoed by the fact that on a number of the letters on the Longfellow station have been replaced by not-quite matches, suggesting even the USPS itself couldn’t figure it out the second time around.
Whatever it is, it’s the sort of elegant, simple typeface that shorthands efficiency and modernity. Think of how rare it is to come across actual lathe cut signage or design elements from the 1960s anymore. Really, think about it. The occasional elementary school or hospital maybe? Most of it is long gone, whether destroyed, painted over, or replaced with flashier, more contemporary elements. The post offices are really one of the last holdouts for this kind of high bureaucratic vernacular design sensibility.
Maybe I’m a little too sentimental about these sorts of things, but I love how this sort of lathe-cut lettering is the product of a highly trained artisan with his or her own set of sensibilities and skills, closely following a government style manual outlining the most mundane details of, say, the appropriate height and roundness of the bowl on the letter “P.” It seems both carefully handcrafted and brushingly impersonal.
Which is a little bit like the post office itself, come to think of it: careful handicraft and brushing impersonality. What could be more delicate than a handwritten letter or wrapped package? Once you step in through the false wall and lathe-cut lettering, the post office at Christmas time is predictably bonkers in each case, with lines of people waiting to send and receive holiday packages. City postal workers often possess a certain ironic cheerfulness (or maybe, more precisely, a cheerful irony) in their dealings with the public. They’re wry, and almost world-weary sometimes. However, they often also tell weird, inexplicably funny jokes, and they’re fast and no-nonsense without seeming like automatons. Unlike many workers in retail sectors around Christmas, they rarely seem dispirited.
Particularly this time of year, no one seems to enjoy being at the post office, exactly, but there is a pleasing sense of possibility in knowing people are sending or receiving gifts from their loved ones. Most people walk out seeming satisfied, with a vocal minority mumbling profanity about how they can’t believe the post office couldn’t do such-and-such – observing impartially, it’s impossible to know if these complaints are justified (“they didn’t have any forty-four cent stamps”) or not (“they wouldn’t let me mail a can of gasoline to a P.O. box”).
The post office is still a relatively democratic institution: To a certain extent, you can buy your way out of the system by using home pickup FedEx or UPS, but there’s only one way to pick up or mail packages of a certain size in a truly value-conscious way. A post office is still where a neighborhood comes together, and I enjoy observing the pan-ethnic, pan-generational mix of people interacting at the three south Minneapolis stations I visit.
Weirdly, the post office’s own advertising around services like stamps.com play on people’s apparent distaste for the institution, trumpeting how you can finally eliminate trips to the dreaded post office from your life for good. I never thought the post office was that unpleasant at all; I like my regular post office clerk, a good-natured fellow with a flat-top and earring in the downtown St. Paul branch who always makes sure my letters get to where they need to go. In these days of looming reductions in postal service, cuts to the employees’ hours and pensions, and increased automation in the way we send correspondence, just going down to the post office to mail a note to someone can seem like an almost political act.
Mary is quick to point out the personal-is-political dimensions of buying a stamp and supporting the USPS when I talk to her. “Save the economy,” she often says. “Send more letters.”