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Mail Call
By Catherine C. Brooks
 
     Today we take much of life for granted, including our postal service. Either a mail truck delivers letters, magazines, packages and advertisements to our mailboxes; or we have a numbered box at the post office that we access with a key. In rural towns in many sections of the United States, the transition to such a system only took place in the past few decades. Postal delivery like other areas of our lives has been geared to a faster pace. Yet many of us remember the days when, before the mail truck arrived, many had gathered to visit and wait until the mail was sorted and the postmaster began calling recipients names.

     Many associate the ‘mail call’ with only service personnel. However, we country folk on the coast had a ‘mail call’ six days a week except on special holidays in years past. On rainy or stormy days, when men couldn’t work in the fields or on the waterways, many congregated in the local store with the post office in the corner either in the late morning or early afternoon. They aimed to meet awhile before the mail truck arrived to visit. Few had telephones, e-mail was unknown, the daily paper didn’t give local news and the local paper only came once a week by mail. We can’t say they were nosy but just wanted to know how their neighbors fared with perhaps a bit of gossip added. 

     Unless the person lived close by or belonged to the immediate family, one wouldn’t know of a death, when and where the funeral would be, whether the body lay in the funeral home or at the home for calling hours, and even their age might be discussed. Marriages, births and any other statistics became general knowledge during their visits. Many gave opinions of the upcoming weather, often based on what the almanac said about the time of full or new moon. In the late winter or early spring, reports on what they had planted or when they planned to plant a particular crop became the subject. But when July arrived, discussions changed as to who had the first ripe tomatoes, the first ripened sweet corn or other crops. Later they would discuss the size and sweetness of the watermelons and cantaloupes. Before they covered all the usual topics, the postmaster would begin calling names, wanting each one present to take their mail. Some called the names alphabetically while others summoned the ones nearer to him until the entire group had been covered.

     Often on pretty days when the men worked, the women would be on hand for ‘mail call.’ They covered the same vital information that the men did, but then conversation changed. New recipes were exchanged, usually verbally; they shared what they had canned or in latter years frozen; some were doing new sewing projects or house cleaning, and they usually added a little gossip. Often they departed long after they had the mail in hand.

     When the days were pleasant and the women folk busy, the men went in the evening to sit for an hour or more after they purchased any necessities for the family and picked up the mail. Many men who worked in town or out of the county made this a regular practice. Storekeepers, who were usually the postmaster or assistant postmaster, called the names of each one who sat in the store and had mail when the first one requested his. These servants of the people had to set a time for closing, or some men with little to do and no one at home may linger far too late.

     Before Kirby and I married, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be a ‘store widow’ nights. He agreed, to my delight. Other than going to pick up some needed item and the mail, he kept his promise. That is, except for one year that he operated Charlie Diggs’ store while he fought in Korea. Onemo Post Office sat in the corner of the store, and he also acted as assistant postmaster during that time with the United Postal Service’s approval. His closing hour was 9:00 p.m., but I didn’t see him until 9:45 some nights when some lingered after hours.

     He did take an hour for lunch while the postmistress took charge, and he did the same in return for her. Then he closed the store from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. to come home for dinner. I aimed to have the meal ready when he arrived home, permitting relaxation while we ate. As a rule we had time after our meal to talk or to play with Kirk, who was almost two years old. 

     After super markets replaced the country stores, post offices either remained in the same buildings or moved to smaller quarters. Then gradually they began to consolidate and Highway Carriers delivered to many of the customers on their route. In time the Post Office Department required all post offices have rental boxes that are available night and day for persons without home delivery. The only visiting at the post office today takes place when customers happen to meet while picking up their mail. ‘Mail Call’ days are past except among some service personnel. 

     Since I started my research for the book that I hope to see published on the history of the United States Post Offices, I’ve learned how few of our younger generation and former urban residents know about the days that were a part of many years of my life. I’ve also learned there are even more unusual incidents concerning our postal system than I had knowledge. If anyone has a unique story concerning the postal service that they would share, I’ll gladly include the same, giving you credit unless you prefer to remain anonymous. Contact me at P.O. Box 898, Mathews, VA, 23109 or at

© 2002 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved


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