December 1937

Clerks handle some of the crush of Christmas mail in December 1937 in what then was the brand-new main Post Office at 1720 Market Street. The Post Office hired about 3,000 temporary workers to double its workforce to handle mail and packages in the weeks before Christmas. Post-Dispatch file photo

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ST. LOUIS • With Christmas approaching in 1930 and the Depression settling hard, the Post Office downtown asked for 1,200 temporary helpers to keep up with the crush of holiday mail. More than 4,800 people applied.

St. Louis Postmaster Athol Michener said it would be futile for more job-seekers to come downtown.

The following year, a line of applicants formed at 5 a.m. outside the hiring office in the old federal Custom House, at Third and Olive streets. The Post Office wanted 2,300 extras to help its 2,500 regular clerks and mail carriers. More than 800 showed up that first morning.

The pay wasn't bad  — 65 cents an hour (almost $10 today) — even though the job only lasted three weeks. Post Office officials said they gave preference to unemployed heads of households. They had plenty to choose from.

Temporary hires were needed every year to handle mountains of Christmas letters and packages. Sorting was done by hand. At the sorting center, mail went into canvass sacks, then got tossed onto push carts and hauled to trucks and railroad cars. Newspapers published lists of deadlines for mailing packages to Australia, Germany, Cuba or California by Christmas Day. Regular news updates reported the numbers of letters processed.

Most years, they published photographs of the piles of packages. Plenty of readers had personal wishes somewhere in the jumble, often six times the usual volume.

In 1933, the local Post Office handled 14 million pieces of mail during the last week before Christmas. In a sad sign of the times, Santa got fewer letters from kids.

But total mail volume climbed through the Depression decade. So did hiring. In 1939, the local office sought 3,700 temporary employees to assist the full-time staff of 3,000. It received 4,400 applications.

That changed with entry into World War II. More than 650 postal employees left for the military. Enlistments cut into the temporary pool as well. Before Christmas 1943, St. Louis Postmaster Rufus Jackson warned that mail and packages were piling up.

Labor shortages and the volume of parcels destined for bases overseas forced a big move-up of mailing deadlines — Oct. 15 for soldiers, Nov. 1 for sailors and Marines. It was Dec. 10 for domestic delivery, a week earlier than pre-war deadlines. Harried clerks had to reject any military-bound parcels that weighed more than six pounds. The most frequent overweight item? Radios.

Victory brought relief for the hiring office and steady growth in mailing during the boom years of the 1950s. In 1946, the metro area’s Post Office handled 42.5 million pieces of mail from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24. In 1960, it handled 81.5 million pieces during the same three-week period. Automation reduced the need for so many Christmas temporaries — the Post Office hired 3,900 in 1940, but only 1,200 in 1968.

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Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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