The Post Office in Black and White, 1935-1944

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For many photographers, taking pictures of post offices is a passion, and for good reason.  Our country has are over 32,000 post offices, and they come in all shapes and sizes and vintages.  Many of them may seem rather modest and nondescript at first glance, but in the eye of a collector, there's always something interesting to see.

Many post offices are worth a photo because they are historic buildings.  Over 2,500 post offices owned by the Postal Service are on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and many others are leased in historic buildings.  (There's a slideshow of historic post offices that have recently been earmarked for sale here.)

Almost every architectural style of the past 150 years can be seen in the country's legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices, from the Renaissance Revival post office in Galena, Illinois — completed in 1858, it's said to be the oldest government-built post office in continuous operation — to the postmodern post office in Celebration, Florida, designed by Robert Graves for Disney.  Post offices are excellent examples of American vernacular architecture, and almost every one of them holds pride of place in its community.  Taken as a whole, our post offices comprise a very photogenic infrastructure.  

Postal photographers like Jimmy Emerson (aka jimmywayne) and Evan Kalish (of Going Postal and the PMCC) have taken thousands of pictures of post offices.  Thankfully, their work is shared with the public on websites like Post Mark Collectors Club, PostalMag, Waymarking, Living New Deal, and Flickr, and "Save the Post Office" frequently makes use of their pictures.  By documenting the nation’s post offices with such loving care, these photographers have made an important contribution to postal history.  

Contemporary photographers are working in a great tradition that goes back to the 1930s.  During the Depression, the New Deal's Farm Security Administration sent out a team of photographers to document the plight of poor farmers and rural communities and to promote the efforts of the Roosevelt administration to deal with the economic crisis.  The team included some of the country’s best photographers — Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Ben Shahn (who painted the murals in the Bronx post office).

While they were out photographing the country, they often turned their cameras to the post office.  Their images provide a visual record of an important chapter in the history of the country's postal system.  

These beautiful black-and-white photographs remind us of just how valuable the post office has been in binding the country together.  Many rural post offices were part of a general store and the center of town.  These are the authentic village post offices — not the faux version the Postal Service has been hawking lately as part of its effort to eliminate brick-and-mortar post offices.

The FSA-OWI photographs have been preserved in the Library of Congress for decades, but they have not been easily accessible, not until this year.  An initiative at Yale University, led by Professor Laura Wexler, has made 170,000 of these photos available online in an archive called Photogrammar.  It’s easy to search, and it has an excellent interactive map.

The Photogrammar archive contains over two hundred photographs of post offices and the postal system in the 1930s and 1940s.  Many are included in the slideshow.  Click on the full-screen icon at the bottom of the slideshow for full effect.  Click on the "Source" for each image to go to the Photogrammar page; from there, click on the Call Number to go to the Library of Congress page.  To see more postal photographs of the era, visit the Library of Congress and search for “post office.”

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