Dead letter office gave rise to official seals

Apr 29, 2021, 3 AM

By Rick Miller

In most countries, when a first-class mailpiece is undeliverable as addressed, it is returned or forwarded. If there is no return address on the outside of the mailpiece or the return address is invalid, the mailpiece is forwarded to the dead letter office.

It is then the job of the dead letter office to open the mailpiece and look for clues to aid in delivering the mailpiece or in returning it to sender.

The dead letter office predates the use of adhesive postage stamps.

In the United States, the second Continental Congress created the position of inspector of dead letters to open and examine undeliverable mail. Ebenezer Hazard was the first to hold the office. In 1825, the U.S. Post Office Department established its dead letter office in Washington, D.C. By 1893, the dead letter office was handling more than 20,000 items daily.

In much of the rest of the English-speaking world, the dead letter office is known as the returned letter office.

Today the U.S. Postal Service maintains mail recovery centers in St. Paul, Minn., Atlanta, Ga., and San Francisco, Calif. More than 200 clerks work in the three facilities. The centers annually process more than 98 million letters and 1.2 million packages. Undeliverable letters are shredded and recycled. Undeliverable bulk mail is recycled by local post offices.

Canada Post maintains national undeliverable mail offices in Scarborough, Ontario, and North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Undeliverable items mailed to Canada from other countries are returned to the country of origin. Undeliverable domestic mail is destroyed.

In Great Britain, all undeliverable mail is directed to the National Return Letter Centre housed in a warehouse in Belfast, Northern Ireland. More than 300 postal workers there sort through about 60 million items a year, forwarding them to the correct address or returning them to sender. Letters that still cannot be delivered are usually held for three months before being recycled.

In the past, undeliverable envelopes or cards were often sold as scrap, or they found their way into dealer or collector hands through the backdoor of the dead letter office.

An undeliverable Australian letter mailed June 30, 1949, from Hobart, Tasmania, to Broken Hill, New South Wales, is shown in Figure 1.

A Broken Hill receiving postmark and directory stamp were applied to the envelope to the right of the address. The Broken Hill post office forwarded the undeliverable letter to the Sydney, New South Wales, dead letter office. The handstamp of the Sydney dead letter office examiner was applied just below the Hobart meter stamp.

The opening of undeliverable mail by the dead letter office gave rise to a need to a way to reseal the envelope that showed that it had been officially opened and resealed.

Post office seals are labels without postal value. They have been used to officially seal registered mail, mail received at the post office in unsealed condition, mail damaged in transit, mail opened by the dead letter office and mail opened by mistake.

In addition to post office seals produced by national postal authorities, some post office seals were locally produced.

World post office seals were listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue until the 1897 edition, when most of them were dropped.

U.S. official seals are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, with catalog numbers prefixed with the letters "OX."

Post office seals of Canada and Newfoundland are listed in the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940.

The earliest recorded on-cover use of an official seal is on a letter mailed Sept. 29, 1864, from Gravesend, England, to Naples, Italy. The front and back of the cover, which belongs to post office seal expert Jim Kotanchik, is shown in Figure 2.

The back of the cover was torn in transit. The tear was sealed using the upper half of an earliest type of Italian official seal. The seal is inscribed "REGIE POSTE ITALIANE" (Royal Italian Post) between the concentric circles of the frame. The blank circle inside the frame provided space for the application of a postmark, although one was not applied in this case.

Other early producers of official seals were Denmark in 1878; Canada in 1879; Chile, Japan, and Mexico in 1885; El Salvador and New Zealand in 1890; Hong Kong in 1894; and Siam in 1895. Postal seals have been produced and used by more than 100 countries.

Representative post office seals from Cuba, Japan, China and Manchoukuo are shown in Figure 3.

Post office seal designs range from utilitarian typeset labels to those with elaborate engraved designs that are arguably as beautiful as any postage stamp.

A relatively plain Peruvian official seal is shown in Figure 4. The seal's utilitarian design makes do with a plain frame, the Peruvian coat of arms and the inscription "Correos del Peru, Cierre Oficial, Adherido por haberse recibido en mal estado" (Peruvian Post Official Seal Applied after having been received in a bad state).

The design of the Chilean red official seal shown in Figure 5 is quite a bit more elaborate. A postmark could be applied in the blank area at the center of the seal's design.

Two of the most elaborate and beautiful post office seals are shown in Figure 6. The Newfoundland black on blue King Edward VII post office seal (Scott OX1) issued in 1905 is shown at left. The Canadian black Queen Victoria post office seal (OX3) issued in 1907 is shown at right. Both of these post office seals were for use by the dead letter office and are so inscribed.

The first U.S. post office seal was issued in 1872. This green registry seal (Scott OXFl), shown in Figure 7, was used to prevent tampering with registered letters while they were in transit. The seal was affixed over the flaps of the large official envelopes in which registered mail letters were enclosed.

In 1877, the U.S. Post Office Department developed an official seal for use on letters opened by the dead letter office. The brown Liberty post office seal (Scott OX1), shown in Figure 8, has the Latin phrase "Post Obitum&quto; (after death) repeated endlessly in the background behind the frame and inscriptions. In practice, very few of these seals were used by the dead letter office, with most being used as general seals.

In 1879, a general-use official seal was produced using the same design but with the "Post Obitum" background omitted.

The standard work on U.S. official seals is The Post Office Seals of the United States by Adam Perkal and Seymour Kazman.

The Official Seal Newsletter is a quarterly publication for collectors of worldwide post office seals and tapes, dead letter labels, currency control seals, telegram seals, registration seals, and explanatory labels. An annual subscription to the newsletter is $20. Write to Jim Drummond, 19335 Pauma Valley Drive, Porter Ranch, CA 91326.

Officially Sealed Mails of the World, an interesting and informative website by Todd Hirn, is located at