Friday, May 6, 2016

25,000 and Counting: the Ultimate Post Office Photo Collection

Some long-time readers have observed that I don't post on this blog as often as I used to. One reason is that I've been involved in a far broader project on behalf of the esteemed Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC), a nonprofit organization with a philatelic museum in northern Ohio. Among the museum's treasures is a physical collection of more than 55,000 post office photographs. I've been working with other postal enthusiasts to expand that collection and digitize much of it for public viewing. The three-year endeavor has resulted in an unparalleled online resource, and the photos have collectively received more than 1.5 million views.

The U.S. Postal Service maintains no such catalogue of its own properties. Even the National Postal Museum lacks a similar collection. The PMCC's Online Post Office Photo Collection might not yet have a picture of your local post office, but it definitely features some from locations near you. As of the end of April the collection possesses at least one photo from every one of the 3,142 U.S. counties (/counties-equivalent), and now boasts 25,000 photographs overall.

Furthermore, every state is represented by at least 100 photos; five states (NY, IL, PA, TX, CA) presently boast more than 1,000 images.

Below: A choropleth map ("heat map") with shades of green representing the number of photographs our online collection possesses from each U.S. county as of May 1, 2016. The darker the shade, the more photographs we have posted. You'll note dense clusters encompassing some of the country's largest metro areas, including New York City; Boston; Philadelphia; Chicago; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Miami; and Washington, DC. Each of the (27) darkest green counties is represented by at least 50 pictures.

County Counts

Note: © All rights reserved. We are pleased to present these photos online, but most of these images are under copyright and may not be re-used without the respective photographers' consent. Commercial usage is prohibited without the purchase of an image license. Contact me (email address in left sidebar) and I can help sort things out for you if you're interested.

Our domestic collection includes photos of mail processing facilities (P&DCs, P&DFs, etc.), carrier annexes, and Contract Postal Units (CPUs and CPOs). This is in addition to 'standard' independent post offices and classified branches and stations. [Note: Village "Post Offices" (VPOs) are garbage and do not qualify in my book.] Below: a cross-section of the different types of postal operations we've documented:

The majority of posted photographs have been taken during the past several years—more than 2,500 were taken during 2014 alone!—though the collection also features more than 600 photographs taken prior to 1950. These have primarily been digitized from the National Archives, where yours truly spent much of one summer on a research grant. Our oldest photo, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, was taken ca. 1878:

Parkersburg, WV post office, ca. 1878

More than 500 of our photos are of postal operations that have since been discontinued; more than 800 pictures are now-former sites of post offices that have since been relocated. Many of the buildings documented now serve other civic or private purposes, though quite a few old post office sites have been abandoned or demolished. Below: before and after pictures of the Greeley Square Station post office in Manhattan, which was relocated in 2013.

A Tale of Two Greeleys

Some Stats:
New York, the state with the most active post offices, is the state for which we have the greatest number of posted photographs (1,500 as of this writing). These include more than 300 photos from New York City [[guilty as charged]], which will be hosting the 2016 World Stamp Show later this month. (P.S. Yours truly is speaking there on June 3. Do drop by!)

Cook County in Illinois, home to Chicago as well as the venerable Steve Bahnsen, is our single best-represented county with 166 photographs as of this writing. Steve has contributed nearly all of these photos. Indeed, he's visited more than 10,000 post offices nationwide, with a focus on the Upper Midwest. A former Postmaster, Steve has been to every post office in Illinois and Iowa. He always keeps me supplied with batches of new imagery to post.

The PMCC's intrepid John Gallagher is responsible for a positively astounding 10,400 of our posted pictures. John might well hold the world record with well more than 30,000 post offices visited worldwide with at least 25,000 visits domestically. (Note: He's been at this longer than I've been alive.) John has also contributed photos from some ridiculously remote places such as the Marshall Islands in the south Pacific, the north Canadian territory of Nunavut, and every state in Australia.

Below: The post office in Brackettville, Texas, sole P.O. in remote Kinney County. Before John trekked out in February 2016 Kinney had been the only one of Texas's 254 counties that was not represented in our collection.

If you're interested in seeing how a post office has evolved over time, our dedication is your gain. Often I'll find that multiple contributors have taken images of the same post office at different times. (With 31,000 active post offices in the U.S. and 55,000+ photos, you can do the math.) When this happens I'll look for differences in the appearance of the building. If there's a notable or otherwise interesting difference (e.g. the addition of a handicapped ramp; a new paint job; or a change to the signage) I'll leave both photos online. If the building looks the same I'll post only the highest-quality image of the batch (unless the photos were taken more than, say, 20 years apart, in which each photo serves the historical record).

Below: a change in the appearance of the Grandview, Iowa post office between visits by John (2008) and Steve (2014):

Grandview, IA post office

The following trio of photos of the Idaho, Ohio Community Post Office (CPO) was taken by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, over the course of several years:

Idaho, OH Community Post Office

Conversely, some things haven't changed. In Yonkers, New York, the main post office building (constructed 1927) looks nearly untouched. Compare the building to its surroundings. (Where have all the electric trolleys gone??) This is the post office at its finest—a sturdy symbol of the federal government's commitment to its communities.

Yonkers, NY Main Post Office

Viewing the Collection
The PMCC Online Post Office Photo Collection homepage is:

From here you can pick your U.S. state (or selected foreign country) of choice. This will take you to an alphabetical state index with a link to each photo listed. You can also sort the photos by county, if you prefer. Below: The start to our Ohio state list. Note the series of operations associated with the Akron Post Office. On the actual page those tiny thumbnail images at the left are clickable.

(P.S. Do you need a primer or reminder as to what the terms "Station," "Branch," "CPU," and "Carrier Annex" mean in the context of postal operations? Check out the PMCC's handy-dandy Postal Unit Glossary!)

Former postal sites and discontinued post offices are also noted on the lists. Also: Classified branches and CPOs are mostly listed under their respective community names, with the parent post office noted in [brackets].

Alternatively, you can access albums and other collections of images through our Flickr portal.

Here is the link to our primary Flickr page, at which you can view all our uploads chronologically, starting with the most recent:

Here you can find our collections of albums (screenshot below):

Flickr Collections of Post Office Photos

Got a photo of a facility we don't have posted? (Especially if you're in the military! ...civvies can't access bases for postal visits like we used to.) The PMCC still has a large backlog of photos yet to be posted, but you're absolutely welcome to contact the author at the email address in the left sidebar to contribute your own.

    Photo Guidelines / Suggestions
  • If the post office is a standalone facility then the photo should feature the entire building (or as much as possible if it's large). Photos of just signage, or selfies taken in front of buildings, are not posted to this collection. Sorry, me at my 4,000th post office in 2012, this photo does not make the cut:

    A photo of a full building is preferred to one that clearly shows the text on its signage, especially if it's that tiny obnoxious white-on-blue sign found on most newer facilities (see above); thanks, USPS Retail Standardization department.
  • If the post office is part of a larger building, row of buildings, or in a mall or strip mall, try to provide a full picture of the front of the operation. I generally include some surroundings for context. The same applies for interior photographs of small post offices contained within larger facilities such as general stores.
  • Landscape orientation is greatly preferred to portrait orientation.
  • The dimensions must be at least 1200 pixels by 900 pixels. (This enables us to create a physical print for our physical museum collection. Note: photos are uploaded to our site at a somewhat lower resolution.)
  • We generally try to avoid including large vehicles in the photo if they obstruct the view of the building. (In my case this sometimes involves waiting around for a couple of minutes while trying not to look too suspicious. Sometimes people take a while and this isn't always possible.)
  • If you're a professional or otherwise concerned photographer, please do not include copyright text or watermarks. We're all in the same boat and I do make efforts to identify and resolve unauthorized photo usage.

We find that our favorite photos are taken at a bit of an angle—they include the front of the building and also grant us a sense of depth by capturing some of the side of the building as well.

(I often use Photoshop and other tools to crop, rotate, sharpen, and improve the lighting characteristics of our photos. Seriously, you don't want to know how much time has gone into this endeavor.)

Note: The author is particularly interested in working with libraries, historical societies, archives, and other philatelic groups to aggregate and digitize additional relevant photographic material! (I'm still not sure what I want to do with old postcards / postal view cards, though it's another interesting direction in which this collection could grow.)

The PMCC extends a big thank-you to Jimmy Emerson for allowing us to co-opt more than 1,700 photos from his astounding collection on Flickr. Jimmy is The Man when it comes to intensive road trips (he once put 7,500 miles on a rental car over ten days) and photographing New Deal post offices and the wealth of artwork therein.

Thanks to Kelvin Kindahl for his continued contributions from his postmark travels. We have many great regional contributors, including: Gary Splittberger, who sends in photos from the mountain states with a focus on Montana and North Dakota—see his great photos of Montana post offices present and of ghost towns past here. Mike Wasko submits loads of great photos from Georgia; Mark Gollnick from Florida; and Skip Are from Georgia and Minnesota. Bill Warwaryick has got us covered up in Alberta, Canada. Additional shout-outs to Norm Ritchie, Ray Sendejas, Mike DelGrosso, and Doug Greenwald. [Below: a moody photo of the Clyde Park, Montana post office by Gary; 2016:]

Clyde Park, Montana post office

For additional great photos of post offices, visit Jordan McAlister's amazing Flickr albums. He's strongest in the Midwest (Kansas, Nebraska, etc.) but has great photos from all around the country.

Whether you've submitted one photo or 1,000, thanks to all our photographic contributors!

And to everyone, thanks for taking an interest in the project. We hope you enjoy the collection as it continues to develop!

1 comment:

  1. Saw your name on the Living New Deal website when I was looking into the work of architect Louis Simon. Wow, you are one amazing guy! I thought this guy's name is on every one of these post offices, there must be some connection, lol! I'm an architectural historian, I collect buildings, and architects, thousands of names and lists, crazy stuff. No time to see it all in one lifetime! Thanks for the contribution you're making in getting this all out there! Way cool!