The next Stamp Act

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NOW that a first-class letter costs 25 cents, I implore the Postal Service to embrace some more economy gestures, as was done away back when a postal card cost 1 cent domestic and 2 cents foreign (but not including Canada and Mexico). Nowadays, every time postage goes up, nothing is done, except to begin propaganda to ease the next increase. But when I was a lad and my Dad was a railway postal clerk, I lived with the regular annual efforts to ``put the department on a sound basis'' and reduce the federal subsidy. In those days everybody in the United States government lived off the postal department, in devious and cunning ways, and if you didn't get free seeds from your congressman, you enjoyed cheap travel on the trains and boats.

There'd be a great government center housing everything from the soil erosion people to the Army recruiter, and because it had a sub-postal-station on the 10th floor, the whole complex was charged off to the Postmaster General, and he sent the bill to Congress. Those were the good old you-know-whats. A ship would sail from New Orleans to Boston, and just before it left the captain would go to the New Orleans post office and mail a postal card to himself at general delivery, Boston, and the postal service would pay his ship mileage, not tonnage, on the safe delivery - when there was no other mail aboard. Oh, yes. My dad used to regale us with many such tales, and we were thus amused at table.

There has been talk, but no great economy efforts such as we had in Dad's time. Like, for instance, the jute string. There was a letter in the Times not long ago from some Englishman who wanted to know what he was supposed to do with all the rubber bands he got around his morning letters, so I gather we're not the only country that has given up jute twine.

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This jute twine we used to tie around packets of letters was the cheapest possible commodity for that purpose, and after being used it was swept up and burned. Postal clerks had a trick about tying it. Holding a bunch of letters in his left hand, the clerk would make two passes with the twine, and then very deftly with his right hand he would tie a square knot. It was a trick every clerk mastered, and he was as adept as any weaver at a loom. Then, looping the twine from the ball around his thumb, he would make a jerk so the string actually pulled against itself and cut itself off. No knife or scissors were needed, as the jute was very poor, use-but-once twine.

Then came a time when postage rates had to go up, and the Postmaster General countered with a new economy move. Jute twine would be eliminated and ``cheap'' cotton string put into use. Dad explained that to us with care - how the senators and congressmen from the cotton states had moved in, so the cotton-farming constituents could also ride the mails, and had slipped this over when all the Northern congressmen were home celebrating Lincoln's birthday. After the cotton string was introduced, Dad gave us another report.

Well, seizing a handful of letters, every postal clerk in the US wound the string, tied his knot, and then made his esoteric loop to break the string. But cotton and jute are two different fibers. When the clerk jerked, he just about severed his thumb, and in one day the department had 78,000 applications for temporary disability. There is no possible way a man can sort letters without his right thumb. So jute twine returned, cotton farmers went on welfare, and postage went up to 3 cents - but an honest effort had been made to curtail costs, and that's what we need today.

One of the best efforts to cut down postal expenses came in the administration of William Howard Taft. His Postmaster General was Frank H. Hitchcock from Massachusetts, whose name lingered long after he, the man, was replaced and forgotten. In those days, every record that a postal clerk had to keep was done with an ``indelible'' pencil. This assured permanency, and frustrated any efforts to tamper with the original.

After a clerk had used a pencil, it would get shorter and shorter, and then he would throw away the stub and use a new pencil.

Postmaster General Hitchcock said, ``Aha!'' After that, every clerk was issued a tin ferrule that fitted over the stub of his pencil, and this lengthened the stub so it could be used right down to the quick. In no time, and for many years to come, all postal clerks called a lead pencil a ``hitchcock,'' and right this minute, in her 102nd year, my mother, a postal-clerk widow, will say hitchcock for a pencil. She remembers well how much money the tin ferrules saved in pencils.

And why must all such economy efforts be in the forgotten past? Why can't the department think up such good schemes today and put a letter back to 3 cents?

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