The Postal Service
Fandom's First Method of Delivery
In the time before the internet, before cheap long-distance phone calls, there was only the Postal Service.
"In 1939 many fans still didn't have phones - including the four who organized the first Worldcon. But in those days if [Sam] Moskowitz mailed a Special Delivery letter by 6 p.m., the other party would get it by 11 if he wasn't more than 50 miles away, at a cost of 3 cents." 
Complaining about postal delivery services was, for fans and their zines, almost an national/international pastime. These complaints have a rich history; in fact, Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel was lost in the post. 
Stamps as a Method of Currency
Sending cash through the mail was risky, and for folks who didn't have checking accounts, postage stamps were sometimes accepted as a method of payment. They were easily procured, flat and inconspicuous, and every fan needed scads of them for communication via letters, SASEs, and postcards.
IRCs and the Challenge of Overseas Commerce
- "The horrors of the post awful... I recently asked one of the workers at my local PO about international reply coupons... and they had no idea what I was talking about. I had to explain to them that when you want someone in another country to return something to you, you can't just plunk a US stamp on the envelope because it will be worthless. Yeesh!" 
For more, see International Reply Coupon.
Postal Rates, a Constant Demon at the Gate
Fans constantly complained about the price of stamps, of bulk mailing rules and of postal hikes.
In one zine, the editors write: "Now for the unpleasantries. Yes, all is not well in the wonderful halls of Datazine [issue #22]. Thanks to constantly rising postal rates... we are forced to raise our subscription rates after the first of the year. If you wish to lock-in our current, painfully low rates, you may send your renewals in before then, and benefit from our folly throughout the rest of the year."
Tangles with scales and rates: "I had all the data wrong for the last issue by believing the rates on the front of our postal scale which were out-of-date. Third Class is fourteen cents for the first 2 oz, after which it pole vaults to twenty-eight cents. So, I innocently stuck thirteen cents on all of [my zine]... and 48 of them came back two days later for more postage. One wonders what happened to the rest of them. Well... the damned thing weighed 2 ozs, exactly. I weighed it on three different scales, and I was not about to give the PO another pound of flesh more. So, I added an extra one cent to each one..." 
Fannish Derision of The Postal Service
Fans had a love/hate relationship to the postal service. On one hand, it brought all sort of goodies to the mailbox. On the other hand, despite the fact it provided a valuable service and often very well, fans frequently derided the very organization that provided their main method of communication.
They also had all sorts of nicknames for the department: "U.S. Maul," "Postal Disservice," "Post Awful," "Post Offal", "Post Orifice", "Post Gargle" (coined by Kay Shapero) and "U.S. Snail Circus", are just a few.
The Pest Office/Post Awful/Post Offal/U.S. Snail/Postal Disservice/U.S. Maul/CENSORED... is not up to its usual shred/mangle/ lose/steal standards! 
Where's the questions list for this one, by the way? [Mysti swore she sent them; I didn't get them. But we all know there's poultergeists [sic] in the post offal, don't we?] 
I have had tremendous difficulty with the Post Awful this time -- which is why some of the stories don't have art. Meg MacDonald generously volunteered to type the story; she did and sent it -- and I never go it. Meg retyped it and sent it -- but today was the day the Post Offal substitute carrier decided to turn in before getting to [street address] so we didn't get ANY delivery at all today. 
If this [letter to the letterzine] makes it by the deadline the post offence, will have redeemed itself slightly. Only slightly. 
...out here in the boondocks of Northern Ireland, ...I can't help feeling just a tad isolated at times, despite corresponding with several people on the mainland. Especially when, after years of sterling service, the Post Office creates a Black Hole in the middle of the Irish Sea and drops mail into it, which has happened more than once recently. 
Even if the US Maul (which is willing to ship outright professional porn these days) were willing to comply with a censorship attempt on a fanzine, no private 3rd class carrier will do it. 
Not to forget the P.O. and Gen Tel, both of whom seem to have an instinctive grudge against zineds. The former quotes me 4 different rates on the same package, throws mail in the bushes instead of the mailbox, scrunches (ouch) illos marked "fragile" (NEVER label anything "fragile" -- it's forwarded immediately to the Post Awful Training Center where they use it in their newest class: How to Disintegrate 'Trekkie' Mail), and delivers correspondence tapes in 123 tiny pieces and after you work 3 hours to get it reassembled, you find out they erased it anyway! 
If no one else manages to goof you up, the good old Post Offal can be relied on to foul up everything — and at the last possible moment. 
In fact, if you can send a photocopy [of your artwork submission] it would be better, in case, under the careful ministrations of the British GPO, it should be mutilated. I'd hate an original to go AWOL or worse. Please remember to keep your original in case of postal accidents. 
Some Praise for the Postal Service
Thank heavens for the reliability of the Post Office. Tales of Feldman was written at a time before there was a Kinkos [copy store, today's FedEx] on every corner. "Mindy... [pre-1981], circulated her Star Trekstory in an innovative way: she sent her only copy to interested fans to read; then the fan would send it back so she could mail the copy to someone else. In a year or so, enthusiastic readers persuaded her to make the story available to a larger audience, and she found a publisher. The story appeared next year as the fanzine Tales of Feldman." It went on to win a Fan Q. 
A fan who was a postal carrier wrote in 1987: "I've learned all the nitty gritty get down dirt about the functionings of the Post Office and I'll never again in good conscious be able to use the term Post Awful again." 
The Postal Service as a Scapegoat
Fans constantly complained of letters, zines, art work being lost in the mail. Zine editors apologized for lack of art in zines, citing lost mail. Fans complained of communication being diverted or halted, citing lost mail. Fannish conflicts were often blamed on lost mail.
While postal mishaps were a certain reality, the amount of them is most likely overly described. Blaming the post office for fannish mistakes, communication decisions, and personal failure is much like blaming one's spam filters and the internet for losing an expected email today.
One zined pokes a gentle stick at fans and what she perceived as a fandom-wide slow-down of LoCs received and the excuses she'd heard: "There are several possible reasons for the slowdown: the post office ate your letter; you went pro and don't have time to write; the post office ate your letter; you have your own zine and don't have time to write; the post office ate your letter; you don't know what to say; the post office ate your letter." -- From Stylus #1
The Postal Service as The Law
In the personal statements section of Datazine, and in many other fannish gathering places, people talked of zines paid for and not received, and wrote of officially filing claims with the Post Master and turning fans in for mail fraud. While there are many examples of this practice, it is unclear if this tactic ever resulted in any action.
The Post Office, Customs and Slash
Until the gay rights movement brought changes in anti-discrimination laws, many state laws regarded material addressing or depicting homosexual activity as pornographic. It was therefore illegal to send gay works through the mail. (It is still illegal to use the U.S. mail to send pornography, which is why most is transported via UPS.)
One UK fan had a near miss: "... one such purchase [a slash zine] led to a bit of excitement the other day. The postwoman knocked on my door with a second-hand zine I'd ordered from the States. "Continental B/D" had left the USA discreetly concealed in one of those UPS Priority Mail envelopes, but when the postwoman handed it to me, it was in a Post Office transparent wrapper. "It came open in the Post," she said. "I'm sorry. But it doesn't look damaged." And she gave me a very nice smile, so I can only assume she liked the Suzanne Lovett cover..." 
Another UK fan wrote: "About five years ago , I ordered a load of zines from Kathy Resch. Half were gen zines and half were slash. She posted them in two parcels. The gen zines arrived a few days later - no problem. The slash didn't turn up though she said she'd posted both parcels together. A couple of weeks later they arrived. They'd been opened and checked by customs and re-sealed with an official this-parcel-has-been-examined-by-customs sticker. They were all there and there was no complaint about the content. They were quite well thumbed through and had obviously been well handled. I think the ladies who work for the UK customs had had a lovely time!" 
In 1985, a fan of The Professionals stated her unhappiness with the idea that Pros fiction was going to move from circuit stories to zines -- one reason why: "[The] fancy covers with spiral binding... attract the unwanted attention of H.M. Customs & Excise. Those are just a few of the reasons I'm not in favour of B/D zines. With typewritten stories, they're unobtrusive." 
- "Sam Moskowitz delivered two talks at the 1939 con, one of them 'The Fan World of the Future.'... [At the 1992 Worldcon], he began with his own look back at the way fans lived 50 years ago, a series of recollections that enthralled everyone." -- from File 770 #95, November 1992
- "The manuscript of 'The Narrative of John Smith' was lost in the post on the way to the publishers and then rewritten by Conan Doyle from memory. Although he continued to revise the text and drew on various passages from it in subsequent writings, Conan Doyle never re-submitted the novel for publication, later claiming in jest: 'my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again – in print.' British Library Press Release, September 2011, accessed November 2011 (Be shocked, Mr. Doyle, as this novel was reprinted in 2011, after your notes were bought at an auction.)
- from Herne's Stepchildren #8
- from Implosion #4
- from the You are Receiving this Zine Because page in Galactic Discourse #1, regarding the safe arrival of material
- from Cold Fish and Stale Chips #8
- from the editorial in Moonphases #10, 1988
- S and H #29, January 1982
- from DIAL #6 (1998)
- from an editorial in an issue of Naked Times
- the second issue of The Plain and Simple Zine (1995), commenting on art that was to be in that issue
- S and H #28, December 1981
- from the editorial from Galactic Discourse #1
- from Time Warp #2
- from Beyond Antares #25
- Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967 - 1987
- from Tell Me Something I Don't Know #2
- from DIAL #10
- from DIAL #17
- from The Hatstand Express #7