A Brief History of American Dead Letter Offices

The United States postal system was established on this day in 1775, and mail started going “dead” very soon after

The dead letter office circa 1922. The contents of unresolvable dead letters and packages are periodically sold off by the USPS. Library of Congress

Is your handwriting bad? The letter you’re sending could end up at the Dead Letter Office.

On this day in 1775, the United States Postal Service was established by the Second Continental Congress. Although it took years to get the regular, reliable mail system Americans enjoy today, a problem quickly arose: what to do with mystery mail.

They’re called dead letters: missives that can’t be delivered to their intended recipient or returned to sender, usually because there’s no return address. The USPS officially opened a dead letter office in 1825, but the idea of having one is older than the national postal service itself. Join us to open up the history of American dead letter offices:

1737: Benjamin Franklin threatens non-paying letter senders

Franklin became postmaster of Philadelphia while it was still under British rule in 1737. Four years later, Franklin printed a list of almost 800 names in the Pennsylvania Gazette–people who had not picked up their post and paid the necessary penny for it. (At the time, the recipients of mail—rather than the senders—paid the postage.) “Franklin warned that if they were not redeemed before March 25 following they would be ‘sent away as dead Letters to the General Post Office,'” according to the National Archives.   

1775: The postal service is established

Given his past experience and Revolutionary cred, Franklin was appointed to the position of first Postmaster General, but he was quickly called to other matters. “America’s present Postal Service descends in an unbroken line from the system he planned and placed in operation,” writes Mary Bellis for ThoughtCo. The system Franklin’s fellow Postmasters inherited included an “Inspector of Dead Letters” who was charged with figuring out where dead letters should be sent.

1825: The first official Dead Letter Office opens

The thing about dead letters is that the postal service doesn’t want them to stay dead. The Dead Letter Office opened in 1825. By the 1860s, with the nation's men busy fighting in the Civil War, women employees outnumbered the men 38 to 7. These mostly female clerks acted as “skilled dead letter detectives,” inspecting the mail for potential clues about who sent it or where it was going.

“Basically, dead letter clerks handled three types of mystery mail,” wrote James H. Bruns for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum:  

Misdirected letters, which were those which had all of the right information necessary to get them delivered, but for some reason were sidetracked, largely either because they weren't handled correctly by postal employees or had been abandoned at the designated post office; "Blind Readings," so called because to the average postal worker the address would appear as though it was read blindfolded; and prank mail.

“By 1893 over 20,000 items a day passed through it,” according to 99 Percent Invisible. The office retained its whimsical name in 1992, writes Karl Smallwood for Today I Found Out.  At that point, Smallwood writes, “the USPS opted to change it to better reflect the ultimate goal of returning mail.” Today it’s based in Atlanta and known as the Mail Recovery Center.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.