Last month, the actor John Ratzenberger, famous for his turn as Cliff Clavin, the trivia- and beer-loving mailman on Cheers, recorded a public service announcement. “The post office is in a little bit of a pickle right now,” he groaned, referring to the drastic budget cuts and abrupt reorganization that have thrown the mail system into chaos as the country heads toward a presidential election where more people will be voting by mail than ever. In order to give the U.S. Postal Service a quick infusion of cash, he suggested we all do our holiday shopping at the USPS store. “Why not translate the dollar amount you’re going to pay for Aunt Tilly’s new hat, and just buy her that amount of stamps?”
Ratzenberger didn’t seem especially enthusiastic about his Cameo-commissioned PSA, but his curmudgeonly drawl was what audiences came to expect from Cliff, and indeed from postal workers across pop culture. Often portrayed as boring and unfriendly grunts or buffoonish figures fleeing hungry dogs, on-screen portrayals of postal workers tend to reflect the worst stereotypes of inefficient civil servants. Seinfeld’s Newman, played by Wayne Knight, is an unhinged petty tyrant who abuses his position at the post office to wield power over others. He takes special pleasure in trying to scare Jerry with thinly veiled threats like: “Just remember this—when you control the mail, you control … information.”
It was not always so. In the 1930s, postal workers, particularly airmail pilots, were lionized as risk-taking rogues who broke as many hearts as they did wingtips. Capitalizing on the fame of airmail pilot–turned–celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh, Hollywood released a spate of sexy thrillers about the dashing men who risked their lives to deliver mail on time—movies like 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings, starring Cary Grant as a driven flyboy who put delivering letters before falling in love (even with Rita Hayworth). At the time, flying was extremely dangerous; airmail pilots were given rudimentary instruments like maps and compasses to find their way over mountain passes, both of which were difficult to see at night or in bad weather. Fatal crashes were common, but this only sharpened the public’s appetite for stories about the young men who signed up for such high-risk work. In his book From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun, historian Michael Paris says the airmail pilot became something akin to an early 20th century cowboy, evoking romantic comparisons to the pony express and ensuring American audiences that “the virtues of frontier individualism” were alive and well.
One of the earliest of these films, in 1932, was Air Mail from director John Ford. It followed a close-knit group of pilots at the fictional Desert Airport, based at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, where treacherous conditions and the Christmas mail rush made for a fatal combo. In the opening sequence, a pilot flying in inclement weather overshoots the runaway and crashes to his death. The pilots run toward the plane and try to salvage the mail from the burning wreckage. “You better be careful of them scorched letters,” one of them says, “They’re worth $3 a piece on those stamp collectors.” The Desert Airport crew is led by a devoted pilot, Mike Miller, who still flies even though his eyesight has deteriorated. When a doctor warns Mike that he will have to tell authorities in D.C. that he is not cleared to fly passengers, Mike scoffs, “Who wants to fly passengers anyway? I fly the mail.” Passenger flights get canceled or delayed when the weather gets bad, but the mail soldiers on. Translation: Real men transport parcels, not people.
Desert Airport is disrupted by the arrival of Duke Talbot, an expert but reckless pilot who invites trouble by womanizing and drinking on the job. He brags about his doomed love affair with the princess of a fictional country in the Balkans. “There’s no use in upsetting all of Central Europe just to put me on the throne,” he tells the other pilots, who have gathered around to hear his stories. Almost all of these airmail films of the 1930s feature a character like Duke, a rakish pilot who uses his nearness to death to at once seduce and terrify the women who fall for him. In Only Angels Have Wings, set in the fictional South American city of Barranca, Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, the head pilot of a fledgling airmail company who breaks the heart of a young Rita Hayworth with his unwillingness to give up the dangerous trade. When a new woman, Bonnie (Jean Arthur), comes into his life, she too suffers from an overwhelming fear that his plane will crash. “Why can’t I love him the way you do?” she asks one of Carter’s pilots. “Why couldn’t I sneer when he tries to kill himself, feel proud when he doesn’t?”
Above all, these films stress that no matter how dangerous the conditions or how tragic the loss of life, getting the mail in on time was worth the cost, and anyone who suggested otherwise was missing the big picture. That most certainly was the point of view that came across in 1933’s Night Flight, which stars Clark Gable as Jules Fabian, a pilot for another South American airline. The story begins in Rio de Janeiro, in the middle of a polio outbreak. A mother despairs over her sick child until the doctor says that now, thanks to a new night mail service, they will be able to get a curative serum from Chile within 24 hours—just enough time to save the child’s life. The terrain over the Andes mountain range is treacherous. The head of the airline explains to one of his workers that the trip involves “flying blind in clouds, going 120 miles per hour not being able to even see your own wingtips, with mountain peaks all around you, and air currents like elevators shooting you up and down.”
After Fabian’s plane goes missing, a local pilot is hired to do the mail run to Rio. His wife begs him not to, asking why anyone should brave such conditions “just so someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday.” That line is proven hollow when an ambulance shows up to meet the plane after it lands, ready to safely deliver the serum in time to save the little boy’s life. In the final scene, we see Fabian’s parachute in the water, and a ghost plane emerges out of the sea with him in the cockpit. Suddenly dozens of ghost planes follow suit. On the screen it reads: “And such is human courage … that men died so … others might live … and so, at last man’s empire might reach triumphant in the sky.”
Though these films certainly framed the plight of airmail pilots as tragic, they nonetheless made the attractiveness—both physical and moral—of these men contingent on the degree of danger they faced in the air. In doing so, these movies glamorized the very conditions that actual airmail pilots were fighting against in the courts. It was in the early 1930s that the first professional union of pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association, was formed to push back against the predatory mail delivery contracts that forced pilots to fly in unsafe conditions lest they lose out on pay, a practice known as “pilot pushing.”
By the 1940s, with the onset of World War II and better safety standards in the aviation industry, the life of an airmail pilot no longer seemed especially dangerous. Following the labor victories won in the 1970 mail strike, the postal industry became associated in the public’s consciousness with job security and excellent benefits, creating a pathway to the middle class for many American workers, particularly Black Americans. (In 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, aspiring filmmaker Robert Townsend repeats the mantra that “there’s always work at the post office.”) Perhaps that is why, with the notable exception of Tupac’s turn as Janet Jackson’s mailman in Poetic Justice, postal workers have been many things since the 1930s, but sexy has not been one of them. What the airmail films of the 1930s reveal is just how much popular culture shapes our attitudes toward labor, making heroes out of victims and cranks out of people who value pensions over postcards.
The tide might be turning. A tweet suggesting that “we must sexualize the USPS in order to save it” quickly went viral, amassing over 300,000 likes, and the writer Ira Madison picked up the torch: “Does the USPS have an OnlyFans let’s really get them some coin …Wet Ass Postage.” On TikTok, a user named Siete White filmed herself twerking to the song “WAP” while wearing a mail carrier bag she purchased from the USPS store; the bag sold out within a day. Mashup videos of postal workers delivering mail and petting dogs to the sound of “WAP” and Flo Milli’s “In the Party” started to pop up on the site. The actor Jon Hamm jokingly proposed a stamp with his picture on it, telling Larry David, “You gotta figure a lotta ladies want to lick this face.” While these videos are in jest, it is true that as everyday errands like grocery shopping feel as scary as flying blind over a mountain pass in the Andes, risk is starting to lose its sex appeal. Perhaps we are finally ready to eroticize a stable job with benefits where no one gets hurt—at least beyond the odd paper cut.