EIU Teaching with Primary Sources
The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks
Each family has a box of keepsakes gathering dust in an attic or basement. Some items, like those at the Library of Congress, have historical significance and are shared electronically with the world. Some are private, like a letter shared within a family or a photo passed through generations. Sharing these items offers a glimpse into our daily lives and local events that may not be preserved in other places.
Primary sources are original items that have survived from the past, such as documents, letters, photographs and more. They were part of a direct personal experience of a specific time or event. Every object has a creator and every creator has a unique perspective. Sharing primary sources with future generations connects them to our personal histories. Teaching with Primary Sources is an initiative of the Library of Congress that celebrates the power of teaching with primary sources – engaging students by showing them that history is REAL and that the people, places and events of the past impact who they are and the communities they live in today.
This spring, eleven former railway post office clerks came to EIU to share personal stories and artifacts. For over 100 years RPO cars carrying clerks canceling, sorting and loading mail were found on American railroads. RPO clerks were considered to be the elite of the mail service, in constant motion spending days away from home working the mail into pouches and slots at 60 – 80 mph. They spent time off studying schemes to learn exact locations of thousands of towns, villages and connecting communities. Clerks were held at the highest level of accountability and took great pride in their work.
When we think of mail trains, we imagine black and white film showing gun wielding bandits or gnarled piles of wreckage. While these images may reflect early days, this project studies mail by rail in the mid 1900s - a time of growth and change. Long before cell phones, texts and email, it was the U.S. Mail that connected the nation. As recently as 1950, 93% of non-local mail was processed over 600,000 route miles daily with clerks working and sometimes catching and delivering “on the fly”.
The end of the RPO is linked to growth and changes in the entire country. In the 1960s post offices were built in communities off the railway, being developed on new highway systems. Passage of the 1956 National Defense Highways Act led to affordable automobiles and the development of interstate highways and rail passengers decreased sharply. Because mail cars were part of passenger trains, the number of trains available dropped. The U.S. Postal Service knew it was time for a change and skilled RPO clerks were transferred to other assignments.
The Project and Team
This project is titled CONSTANT MOTION: The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks and the goal is to create a collection of resources to help educators teach about the jobs of RPO clerks at a fascinating time of American history using primary sources. Products being created include a website of digitized resources such as short videos and collections of digitized primary sources like photographs, documents, tools, etc.
Originating from Dr. Cindy Rich and Melissa Carr of EIU Teaching with Primary Sources, the project became a reality with support from EIU academic departments, Booth Library and WEIU. Students of Dr. Jay Bickford in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Middle Level Education participated by researching railway post offices and roles of the clerks, interviewing clerks and digitizing primary sources. Students experienced firsthand the power of teaching with primary sources and will hopefully engage students in their classrooms through oral histories, personal artifacts and local history. Lori Casey and Kate Pleasant, producers with WEIU, assisted Department of Communication Studies students as they directed, filmed and edited recorded interviews. Booth Library is hosting an exhibit of artifacts loaned to EIU TPS by the clerks.