A look at the U.S. Postal Service’s attempt to modernize in 1954

From post offices on wheels to automated stamp dispensers, the USPS was looking for innovative ways to process the 54 billion items mailed that year.

The nation's largest post office serves only two of New York's five boroughs—Manhattan and the Bronx. Yet it earns a tenth of United States postal revenue, and every day it dispatches an average 17 million pieces of mail, including 192,000 parcels. A kind of ordered chaos prevails inside the cavernous halls where this avalanche is handled. Here a pre-Christmas flood, swept in by conveyor belt, pours down a metal slide which employees dub "Niagara Falls." Parcels fly in many directions as clerks separate them by regions and States; elsewhere they arc sorted by cities and distribution centers.
Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel and Donald McBain, Nat Geo Image Collection

Recently Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield, who left a highly successful business career in Michigan to join President Eisenhower's Cabinet, was discussing the size of the United States Post Office Department. With a rueful smile he recalled his reaction to the Department's sprawling dimensions on the day he assumed the job of No. 1 postman.

"I walked into my office alone," he told me, "and received my first surprise. That office was overwhelming—almost as big as a basketball court! After a hike around the room I sat at my desk and picked up an organizational chart.

"The chart gave me another surprise, for not until then did I realize the full magnitude of the Post Office. I thought, 'Five hundred thousand employees! Why, this organization must be as large as General Motors!'"

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