Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

Mail used to be one of my favorite things in the world. I was always excited to see what might be in the mailbox today: a letter from one of my many correspondents, a magazine, a check, photos I’d sent out for processing, a gift from a friend or relative, a catalog full of interesting things, or a package containing one of the interesting things I’d ordered from the catalog. Some days I got nothing, and many days I got only bills or junk mail. But the tiny thrill of finding something interesting in my mailbox was always something to look forward to.

Times have changed. Although the U.S. Postal Service is still doing brisk business and is in no imminent danger of disappearing due to lack of interest, my own personal love affair with mail has faded. I still have lots of correspondents, but we communicate electronically. I receive and pay most of my bills online too. Photos, of course, go straight from my camera to a Web site or printer. And the whole notion of “mail order” seems quaintly anachronistic, even though the mail carrier is sometimes the person who delivers the stuff I order online. Yes, I do still subscribe to some paper magazines and get the occasional check or letter in the mail, but for the most part, the spark is gone.

Addressing Concerns

The other day, though, I was in a library looking at a book from the early 1900s in which there happened to be an extensive discussion of the Dead Letter Office. All at once, childhood memories came racing back: stern warnings from teachers to address mail properly, always include a return address, and, when sending a package, put an extra copy of the address inside. Were we not to do these things, the grown-ups cautioned us, our mail may end up in this mysterious and spooky room where it would, so we were led to believe, be unrecoverable for all eternity. And I remembered fantasizing about visiting that sacred vault, wherever it may be, wondering what incredible treasures I might find among its misaddressed envelopes and parcels. The century-old book provided a rather more prosaic description of how the Dead Letter Office had functioned at that time. And that got me thinking: is there still such a thing today? Where do letters really go when they die?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is St. Paul, Minnesota. Or Atlanta. In these two cities, the U.S. Postal Service operates large facilities called Mail Recovery Centers (MRCs), as “dead letter offices” have been known officially since 1992. (Formerly, there was also an MRC here in San Francisco.) The Post Office established the first dead letter office in 1825; from then until 1917, all undeliverable mail was sent to a single, central location in Washington, D.C.. But given the staggering number of such items—now on the order of 80 million per year—it made more sense to decentralize the effort somewhat.

Bring Out Your Dead (Letters)

Items arrive at the nearest MRC when they can be neither delivered nor returned—meaning both the recipient’s address and the sender’s address are incorrect, illegible, or missing. There, the pieces follow one of two paths—one for letters, one for parcels. Letters are scanned by machine for currency, checks, or other items of obvious value. If such enclosures are discovered, the envelopes are opened and examined. (Incidentally, Mail Recovery Center clerks are the only people who can legally open someone else’s mail—for everyone else, it would be a federal offense.) The Post Office makes an effort to locate either the sender or the recipient, using any clues available in the letter itself; if successful, they return the valuables. The rest of the letters are unceremoniously shredded—love letters, poems, manifestos, everything.

Packages are a bit different: every one must be opened and inspected by hand. Again, postal workers look for an enclosed address or some other kind of clue—a name, a phone number, or anything they can use to discover the item’s rightful owner. If they do find the owner, which happens about a quarter of the time, they normally forward the item without charge. If not, the contents of the package are stored for at least 90 days, in case someone files a claim. Unclaimed items left longer than that are either given away to charities or sold at auction. At these auctions, which take place in either St. Paul or Atlanta every few weeks, bargain-hunters can bid on large lots of merchandise—the quantity is simply too great to auction each item individually. Income from the auctions pays for just a portion of the MRCs’ operating expenses, which are considerable: the facilities employ more than 200 full-time staff people in all.

Although a great many of the items that arrive in MRCs are truly dead, the purpose of the facilities is in fact to resurrect as many as possible—they’re really undead letter offices. MRC employees have found an astonishing variety of items—not only common items like books and CDs but jewelry, computers, live animals, drugs, guns, human remains, and everything else imaginable. And, from all accounts, they find it quite rewarding to reunite lost belongings with their owners. It sounds like the perfect job for someone who still loves getting surprises in the mail. —Joe Kissell

More Information

For more on the Mail Recovery Centers and their predecessors, see: