Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., launched an ominous website emblazoned with a ticking countdown clock and featuring a melodramatic video. The film’s opening image: a tattered, quivering American flag stuck in a splintered wooden post, enveloped by a somber, stormy sky. “An American icon is broke,” the video voice-over begins, “done in by decades of lavish spending, defeated by new technology.” That icon is the United States Postal Service. And the video, while somewhat histrionic, is correct. If Congress doesn’t act to relieve the USPS’ debt by Sept. 30, the 236-year-old institution could default and collapse.
A few decades ago, saving the USPS would not have merited such a dramatic public relations campaign. What’s changed? “That relationship, the one-on-one that used to be very much a part of it, is gone,” explains Nancy Pope, the curator of postal operations at the National Post Office Museum in Washington, D.C. “We still trust [mail carriers] with our mail, but we don’t like them as much.” Pope dusted off this selection of quaint, old ads that reveal a forgotten era of the U.S. Postal Service (called the Post Office Department until the summer of 1971, when it became the U.S. Postal Service)—an era when the common man endeavored to be more like the postman. Men who delivered airmail were superheroes, and patrons treated rural postmen like old friends. In fact, the Post Office Department was so beloved, “companies were basing their ad campaigns on this,” Pope says. See what she means in these images.