A century ago, the Minneapolis post office fielded a half-million letters a day. More than 2,000 arrived with mangled or incomplete addresses that required patient deciphering by specialists in the office.

How many letters does the downtown post office handle these days? Pete Nowacki, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, quickly supplied me with the answer to that question, and more:

“On an average day, the Minneapolis Processing & Distribution center processes about 7 to 9 million letters. Automated processing equipment has gotten far more sophisticated over the years and on average about 2 to 3 percent of letters would be rejected and have to be hand-sorted.

“As you hinted, this can happen for a number of reasons. A particular piece may be of a size, thickness or shape so that it can’t run on a letter sorting machine. The address may be smudged or the penmanship may not be decipherable (although the machines are amazingly good). A letter can also be rejected by automation if the address is invalid (such as transposed numbers or a non-existent ZIP Code) and thus not in our database.”

Postal clerks sorted all mail by hand in 1915. It was a mind-numbing task. Figuring out where to deliver a letter addressed to “Respectabl Wido, Minneapolis, Min.” must have been a welcome distraction. 

From the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune: 


Some of the Letters Received in Postoffice
Would Baffle an Expert in Hieroglyphics

Neurotic Stenographers Create Queer Cryptics for Solution by Patient Postal Clerks.

If you were a postman and received a letter addressed “Double S. Nut Co., Minneapolis, Minn.,” to whom would you undertake to deliver it?

This is not a catch question included in a Civil Service examination, but just a sample of more than 2,000 addressed envelopes received daily at the Minneapolis Postoffice that are so incorrect that at first glance it would seem impossible to find the person entitled to receive it. The above addressed envelope arrived at the Minneapolis office at 6 p.m. April 2 and was delivered by first carrier next morning to the W. S. Nott Company, Second Avenue and Third Street south.

Need of Egyptologist.

The ingenuity and patience of the mail distributers is tested to the limit hundreds of times every day in efforts to decipher hieroglyphics scrawled across the envelope or to work out a puzzle in the form of an address which in some very slight measure indicates that it is intended for some person or firm located somewhere in the city. When one stops to consider that more than 500,000 pieces of mail are received for delivery in this city every day in the year and that more than 10,0000 of that daily grist are improperly addressed, something of the enormity of the work of prompt and speedy delivery of mails is seen.

It Was a Stunner.

“That ‘Double S. Nut’ letter was a stunner,” said W. C. Brown, assistant superintendent of delivery. “More than a dozen of the men who have been in the distributing department of years failed to get the phonetic import of that address. Evidently the address as the result of an inspired stenographer who had just graduated from some phonetic school.

“More than 10,000 incorrectly addressed letters are received every day. By that I mean letters that it takes time and work to determine who is intended by the writer. Such slight mistakes as wrong streets or house numbers are not considered in this estimate because the correct name can be given the proper address in a few minutes by the directory service department, but when the name is incorrect and even worse, when there is little resemblance between the address and any well known firm or person in the city, there is difficulty.”

Try Some of These.

Mr. Brown then exhibited a number of addresses and showed who were intended by the writer. Among the important were “King Europe and Company” delivered to Northrup-King & Co.; Fencks Laundry, for Phoenix Laundry; D.M. Harvesti Co., for Deere-Weber Co., [and] Jan-S Stal Col, for Janney, Semple, Hill & Co.

In one day ten letters addressed to Fawkes Auto Company were received, none of which were correctly addressed and most of them were a puzzle to the distributing clerks. The following are some of the addresses: Keaukes Auto Co., Fawljes Auto Co., Fauces Auto Co., Fawex and Fawux Co., and Farks Auto Co.

Some Chronic Kickers.

Fifty per cent of complaints made at the Postoffice are made by what is known as “repeaters” by the clerks, according to Postmaster Purdy. By a “repeater” is meant the person who has formed the habit of making a complaint when anything goes wrong on the general assumption that the Postoffice is to blame.

Citing some of the complaints recently run down which shows that the Postoffice was not to blame for lack of deliveries, Mr. Purdy said that he did not want to impress the public with the idea that his force never made mistakes, but that many times the office is severely criticized when letters have never been mailed.

Here are some of the recent investigations made covering complaints on account of “bad” delivery:

A brother in the country owed a sister in Minneapolis a sum of money. He wrote he had sent it by mail. Investigation by the postoffice inspector, following a complaint by the woman, showed that she had been deceived.

An insurance man had a score of postoffice employes search for an important insurance document. The envelope had been received by the addressee with no contents. Later the document was found locked in the insurance man’s safe.

A man addressed a letter to a certain town and by mistake wrote Minnesota instead of Iowa. The letter was returned with the comment “No such postoffice.” A curt letter followed with sharp comments on the incompetency of postoffice clerks when he was informed of his blunder.

A business man sent out late Friday a call for a meeting at noon Saturday. Before noon that day he was berating the Postoffice for failure to deliver the cards, when it was discovered he had addressed the invitations to residences instead of the business office of his committee members.

Directory Service Helps.

Instances of delivery made on schedule time when addresses were imperfect were cited by Mr. Purdy.

A letter addressed “Tom,” Andrus Building, was delivered to Thomas S. Ingersol[l], secretary National Association of Real Estate Exchanges.

Hundreds of letters addressed like the following are received daily: “Cordage Co., Minneapolis;” “Olson’s, Churchills-Voegeli,” “Miss Mary Polgo, Yarn Department, Minneapolis,” “The Arm and Leg Co., Minneapolis.”

To provide for speedy delivery of all mails the local Postoffice is equipped with a “directory service” where a score of clerks are kept busy locating last known addresses of citizens, supplying the lack of street and number addresses on the envelopes. Experts in reading addresses and men skilled in applying “phonetic” spelling to words are made a part of the distribution system which handles thousands of letters daily.