The Postal Service

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"Mail is the mother's milk of fandom."
from a fan in Comlink #52 (1992)

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." [1]

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. [2]

From a 1983 review of a zine: "The opening editorial is a song we've heard before. Oh, that nasty post office. So what? Most zine eds just lick their wounds and go on with it!." [3]

A fan in 1990 wrote: "There are five immutable forces of nature — earth, wind, fire, water, and the postal service." [4]

Stamps as a Method of Currency

"Where's th' Zine?" by Don Harden from Datazine #32

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!" [5]

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 wrote:
Now for the unpleasantness. Yes, all is not well in the wonderful halls of Datazine. 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. [6]
There were 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... [7]

There were lot of rules and decisions:

We had an endless number of insults for the mail service. So many zines got lost in the mail if sent via 3rd class mail. People didn't necessarily want to pay extra for 1st class. 4th class (book rate) was pretty reliable, but back then it could be iffy because if a zine was numbered, if the post office did an inspection it would categorize a zine as a periodical, not a book. In that case it could not go via 4th class. 3rd class was for packages and was most frequently used, but it was very slow and not reliable. Packages could take anywhere from two weeks to a month - or longer - to be delivered. IIRC - I'm not sure of this anymore - 2nd class was for periodicals, but - again IIRC - magazines had to be sent with just a mailing label, not in an envelope, to qualify for that rate. [8]

Fannish Derision of The Postal Service

the You Are Receiving This Zine Because from Beta Lyrae, note the second reason

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.

1976

It seems that 3rd class mail now takes a minimum of 15 days. Many of the readers may be interested in that bit of news as one can't help feeling their issue has been lost when it takes over half a month to arrive. As for my self, I am requesting all issues be sent to me 1st class as of now. For those of you who can't afford this, I suggest you organize some sort of campaign or petition aimed at the big Post Office in the sky. There seems to me no excuse for 3rd class mail to have been slowed since the rate increase. 3rd class mail used to take 5-8 days. Mow, as I said, it takes at least twice that long. Are we going to put up with higher rates and crummier service? Probably. Tis human nature. Ah well, don't say I didn't try to spark some bicentennial revolutionary spirit into you. [9]

1977

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! [10]
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! [11]

1978

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. [12]

1979

To begin with, I'd just like to make a few comments about post. Several members have experienced delays in receiving newsletters and replies to enquiries. We're honestly doing our very best, but the postal situation in this part of the world seems to be anything but good. There are phases... when second class mail takes anything from 7 to 10 days to be delivered. Consequently, if you send something to us by second class post, and enclose a second class stamped s.a.e. for the reply, even if we write to you as soon as we receive your letter it will still be a good two weeks from the time you write to the time you receive a reply. Obviously first class mail is best, but at l0p a time, it's no joke! Until the mail gets back to a decent delivery time routine could I ask you to be a little patient when waiting for replies. [13]

1981

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. [14]

1984

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. [15]

1988

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. [16]

1991

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?] [17]

1992

If this [letter to the letterzine] makes it by the deadline the post offence, will have redeemed itself slightly. Only slightly. [18]
This story was "originally slated to appear in The 25th Year , but not included because the story was misplaced by the US Postal Service for several weeks… [19]

1995

It is three days before the zine is due at Mountain Media Con, and the art seems to have been munched by the post office.....So when the art arrives, it will go in issue three and four… [20]

1998

...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. [21]

Some Praise for the Postal Service

Thank heavens for the reliability of the Post Office, say some fans.

1980

A zine ed in 1980 wrote:
Speaking of mail — and I say this whilst stepping onto my size 34 soapbox — there isn't a fan that doesn't gripe about the postal system, right? Wrong. If anything, Melody and I salute postal workers in general. You who complain look only at the rare cases where something goes wrong. What percentage of your mail arrives undamaged in a reasonable amount of time? 99.9%? You who complain about packages being ripped open, fanzines hanging out, Denebian slime stains soaking through letters — in most cases, how well was the item packaged in the first place? Probably not very well. Not enough padding, not enough reinforcement to the weak edges of the manilla [sic] envelopes, not sealed sufficiently. I've received packages so poorly wrapped or sealed that it's a miracle they didn't arrive empty. Genuine mishaps occur, but the postal service is responsible for, perhaps, one out of every one hundred accidents — or less. The fault usually lies with the individual doing the mailing. And it's not just the packaging, it's also the addressing. Each city has to correct up to several thousand addresses a day, work with bad zip codes, decipher illegible handwriting, and track down the recipients of mail where the spelling of the address is so bad it looks like magic if it gets delivered. There is something to a proper zip code; it's the only way all those pieces of mail addressed to Jim in "Los Angeles" got to him in Los Altos. It short, it's the people outside the postal system that are primarily responsible for what few problems the postal system has. Do you think you could do any better? [22]

1987

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. [23]

1996

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. [24]

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 same sex 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.

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. [25]
In 1994, Alexis Fegan Black wrote:
We regret that we can no longer be responsible for orders lost, stolen, confiscated or destroyed when enroute [sic] to countries other than the US. The best possible care is taken when packaging overseas orders, but due to the whims of custom officials, and the hazards befalling overseas orders, we can no longer accept responsibility for replacement of lost zines. Overseas fans wishing to purchase their zines via surface mail (which can take 60-90 days), rates are available as follows: add $2 per zine to the US price. SPECIAL NOTICE TO OVERSEAS FANS: Unfortunately, insurance is no longer available on 
overseas orders due to the problems which have been encountered with customs and duty.
 Personally, I don't understand the system, but I've been told by postal officials that the chances
 of a package being opened are actually increased when insurance is purchased, so...while
 insurance could be purchased, I don't recommend it for K/S orders. [26]

In 1994, Sandy Herrold wrote:

I remember ordering Mobile Ghettos 1-2 (one of my all time fav zine names, BTW) and Poems, Prayers and Promises all at the same time from Phoebe Entwhistle (now SHE was a loss to fandom...wonder where she went?) and her asking for a little more postage money, so she could send them one at a time, so if they got stopped we'd only be out one issue rather than all three. At the time I thought she was just the teensyist bit paranoid.

One of the many highlights of my lovely stay with Gayle F back in July, was seeing her pile of customs notes: i.e., the reports back from other countries customs telling her that they had destroyed her zine (don't remember which one, or even if they were always the same one) rather than let it is to defile their countries purity...

I think one of Gayle's little notes was from Canada.

Sigh,

--Sandy [27]
A UK fan wrote about they're experiences in 1995:
About five years ago [1995], 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! [28]
One UK fan had a near miss in 1999:
... 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... [29]

References

  1. "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
  2. "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.)
  3. Datazine #24 in 1983
  4. from a flyer for Hailing Frequencies #1
  5. from Herne's Stepchildren #8
  6. from Datazine #22
  7. from Implosion #4
  8. catalenamara, message from a private mailing list (January 2018), quoted here with permission
  9. from an LoC in Warped Space #15 (March 1976)
  10. from the editorial from Galactic Discourse #1 (1977)
  11. from the You are Receiving this Zine Because page in Galactic Discourse #1, regarding the safe arrival of material
  12. from Time Warp #2 (1978)
  13. from Beyond Antares #30 (1979)
  14. S and H #28, December 1981
  15. from Beyond Antares #25 (1984)
  16. from the editorial in Moonphases #10, 1988
  17. from Cold Fish and Stale Chips #8 (1991)
  18. S and H #29, January 1982
  19. from an editorial in Naked Times #28
  20. the second issue of The Plain and Simple Zine (1995), commenting on art that was to be in that issue
  21. from DIAL #6 (1998)
  22. Jim Rondeau in The Clipper Trade Ship #29 (1980)
  23. from Tell Me Something I Don't Know #2
  24. Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967 - 1987
  25. from The Hatstand Express #7
  26. from On the Double #30
  27. comment at Virgule-L, used on Fanlore with permission (October 21, 1994)
  28. from DIAL #17
  29. from DIAL #10