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Special Delivery

In the mid 1950s, Dad was Credit Manager for a small dairy. One of his favorite collection techniques was to send a bill for a long overdue payment by Special Delivery mail, dropping it into a mailbox on his way home from work. The envelope would be delivered to its recipient sometime in the middle of the night. Recipients would call the dairy the next morning, hopping mad, threatening Dad, the office manager, the owner of the dairy, and anyone else they could reach. But they paid the bills.

And, what was that "Special Delivery" thing all about?

The U. S. Post Office Department established Special Delivery service in 1885, for an extra fee of ten cents per item. The service was discontinued in 1997. In the beginning, thirteen to sixteen year-old boys were employed to deliver the mail, and received eight cents of the ten cent fee for their work.

20-cent Special Delivery stampIn the mid-fifties, when I recall Dad using the Post Office Department as his collection agency, Special Delivery was a twenty-four hour service, and the 1954 fee was twenty cents, raised to thirty cents in 1957. What a bargain! And—the mail could actually be sent on a postage-due basis, so the recipient had to pay for it. I suspect that's what Dad did.

Think of it. For thirty cents (about $2.15 in 2007 money), a letter could be delivered in the same town within a few hours, and the carrier would drive, or perhaps bicycle through the night, ring the doorbell, and deliver the envelope by hand.

People love to hate the Postal Service. I never did—either in its old incarnation as the Post Office Department, or in its post-Nixon configuration. I still marvel at the value, and usually the spirit in which they work. But in the fifties and sixties it was even more amazing than now. A regular letter cost three cents and air mail was six cents (.22 and .43 in todays money). Add the thirty cents for special delivery, and today's 2nd day delivery service looks like an extravagant indulgence.

Then there was the excitement of receiving the mail. Special Delivery was important! It often meant that a baby had been born. Sometimes it meant someone had died. It could also be a cheap and gracious way simply to recognize someone, saying not just, "I think you're special," but "I'm calling on the entire U. S. Government to recognize how special you are." Or it could be a way of getting a last minute birthday card delivered just in the nick of time.

1950s Airmail StampEven air mail was exciting. In the fifties, the air mail stamp was red, and featured an engraving of an airplane in flight. It meant that someone cared enough to spend twice as much to get the message delivered—never mind that the twice as much was still a pittance.

Special Delivery made Dad a hero at the dairy, when he got payment for bills no one else had been able to collect. Today, that kind of behavior would be labeled as harassment, and would in fact be illegal. I like today's more tolerant attitude toward debtors, and the protection offered by our consumer credit laws.

But I loved those Special Delivery Stamps.

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copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson