US Stamps

Mode of transport for 1934 ‘OWL Mail’ cover revealed

Feb 11, 2016, 10 AM
Thanks to Linn’s readers, we have an answer to the question of the meaning of “OWL MAIL” on this cover sent in 1934. The term reflects the means of transport.

By John M. Hotchner

Thanks to the many Linn’s readers who wrote in with answers to the meaning of “OWL Mail” on the 1934 cover shown in the U.S. Stamp Notes column in the Sept. 14, 2015, issue of Linn’s.

I had requested help from readers in decoding the meaning of the term.

Before we get to the answer I believe has the most to recommend it, let’s look at other ideas that were proposed:

“In 1934 there was a chain of OWL drugstores in the Los Angeles area.

“Maybe some military meaning — Office of War Logistics?

“Over Weight Limit, or Overweight letter?

“Since the company name in the address was in sheet metal manufacturing, perhaps they made sheet metal owls?

“OutWard bound Local mail?

“Organizing Workers Legal?”

All of these are credible, but most of the respondents proposed another answer: the “OWL” refers to a train called the Owl.

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Here is why I think that is the most likely answer. The cover was sent by surface, not airmail, from Los Angeles to Alameda, a distance of 370 miles. It has a cancellation time of 6 p.m. In that era, the most likely method of transport would have been by train.

And, yes, there was a Southern Pacific run that was an overnight service between Los Angeles and San Francisco/Oakland called the Owl Limited, and it was known to have been used for RPO service.

The Owl Limited began service in 1898, and was discontinued in the 1960s.

The endorsement “OWL MAIL” on letters mailed late in the day would alert mail clerks to punch the letter for transport on the fastest overnight service to Oakland. From there it was a short distance to Alameda.

My thanks to the following Linns readers who responded to my earlier column with their ideas and website references: Paul Albright, Ryan Baum, Art Cole, John Coupal, C. David Eeles, Marvin Fletcher, Roland Graham, Richard Haas, Richard Hall, Jim Krome, Tom Massa, Robert Mercurio, Alan Moll, Neal Morgan, Joseph Petraglia, Doug Quine, John Rayko, Bill Sammis, John Thickens, Stephen Walrath, Tony Wawrukiewicz, and Mark Winters.