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99% Invisible

Dead Letter Office

When something is lost in the mail, it feels like it has disappeared into the ether, like it was sucked into a black hole, like it no longer exists. But, it turns out, a lot of the mail we think is lost is actually in a designated place.  The USPS Mail Recovery Center is the contemporary name for the Dead Letter Office.  It’s where our lost mail ends up. And eventually, if our mail doesn’t find its way back to its rightful owner, it’s auctioned off to the highest bidder.

dead letter office

The Dead Letter Office at Washington, a wood engraving sketched by Theodore R. Davis published in Harper’s Weekly, February 22, 1868

The first Dead Letter Office in the US opened in 1825 and by 1893 over 20,000 items a day passed through it. In 2006 over 90,000,000 items were marked undeliverable-as-addressed (UAA) and entered the dead letter and parcel system.

Today, the main Mail Recovery Center (MRC) is located in Atlanta, Georgia. This is where lost mail goes to be sorted, processed and sent back to its rightful owner. In specialized offices, dedicated postal sleuths attempt to piece together illegible addresses or even use the contents of mail to determine the intended recipient. But if the recipient can’t be located, items of value may be auctioned off by officials of the United States Postal Service.

dead letter interior

Dead letter office, September 22, 1922. Probably Washington, D.C. via Wikipedia

Many of the bidders at these auctions are resellers, buying from the USPS and then immediately putting purchased goods back up for auction on websites like eBay.

postal cancelatoin stamps

Stamps and cancellations by Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons

Paper lists distributed to participants document various lots, with descriptions of items ranging from ‘cameras and accessories’ to ‘ethnic items’. Some lots come with unexpected surprises, like $5,000 worth of marijuana hidden in a shoddy painting or human cremains mixed in with a collection of tableware.

The USPS, meanwhile, appears ready to cut out the middlemen, and has started auctioning things off directly via eBay. So the next time you lose a package, check eBay, you may be able to buy back your own stuff. When selecting shipping options, however, you might want to opt for FedEx.


USPS by Bob

Samara Freemark is reporter at APM’s American RadioWorks. She tweets@sfreemark.

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