A postal office that holds on to memories

The Baltimore Sun

It began with a wobbly flower vase.

David A. Brignac received the small ceramic as a gift from a co-worker. But the vase, emblazoned with a detailed painting of a Victorian-era Baltimore post office, proved too tippy to use as a penholder.

"I stuck it in my desk drawer for while," recalls Brignac, 51, a 30-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service. "I didn't realize it was from the late 1880s." Eventually, though, his curiosity led him to discover its age. The rest, as they say, is history.

Two decades after he received the vase, Brignac's office in the finance department of Baltimore's main post office is festooned with postal memorabilia. The items tell a story of how the postal service and people's everyday lives have changed - and stayed the same - over the years.

"They give you a snapshot of what's going on," Brignac said. "The post office is always a reflection of the community."

Brignac's artifacts, collected at estate sales and flea markets, offer a window in time that goes back to late 1880s.

Occasionally, he brings some of the old documents for show-and-tell on poker night. "I'll sit with some buddies and we'll read a couple little stories," he said. "I'm not the silk glove kind of collector."

Highlights of postal history that predate Brignac's collection can be gleaned from documents at Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Baltimore's first post office, built in 1751, was a wooden shanty where couriers dropped packages as they traveled on horseback between Philadelphia and Annapolis - then the location of Maryland's central post office.

Just before the Revolutionary War, Mary A. Goddard, editor of Baltimore's first newspaper, The Maryland Journal and Advertiser, also became the city's first postmaster - unusually influential positions for a woman to hold at the time. (She was appointed to both by her brother, William Goddard, who along with Benjamin Franklin is credited with establishing the fledgling country's postal service.)

By 1835, steam trains were shuttling mail. "Baltimore was a big player in the train services," said Nancy A. Pope, a historian at the National Postal Museum in Washington.

To make delivery more efficient, Pope said, postal workers sorted mail while riding railroad cars known as RPOs, or railway post offices. One of the cars, which were common by the 1870s, is on display in the roundhouse of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore.

The oldest item in Brignac's collection - the crooked-bottomed vase - depicts a post office completed in 1889, when the city's population had grown to more than 400,000.

Uncle Sam's Mail, a board game from that time, sits in its wooden box on a shelf in Brignac's office. The faded lid is covered with pictures of mail service transports - a man on horseback, a stagecoach, a steamer ship and a train. "Everything to do with communication had to do with the post office and the newspaper," Brignac explained.

Brignac's most treasured find is a daily journal he bought at an estate sale in Ellicott City. The journal chronicles the comings and goings of workers at the city's main post office in 1917 and 1918.

Entries in gracefully inked cursive capture the sometimes unpredictable human side of the postal service. An April 25, 1917, entry tells of the firing of G. O'Rourke, a letter carrier who made an annual salary of $1,200 and one day came to work drunk.

"You scattered a good deal of the mail on the road," the author chides.

Another entry tells of William A. Toole, a carrier who was fired after losing his temper at a World War I peace rally. "When the meeting became disorganized and nearly developed into a riot," it reads, "you overturned the speaker's desk upon the heads of the men in the orchestra pit who had interrupted the meeting."

The journal reflects a tumultuous period in history. As American soldiers fought the final battles of the war in the fall of 1918, a deadly strain of influenza hit Baltimore.

Page after page of the journal records postal workers leaving their jobs because they or a family member had fallen ill.

That year, the postal service started using airplanes to deliver mail, a milestone portrayed by a 1928 card game in Brignac's collection called the Air Mail Game. One of the first airfields was established in College Park.

For pilots it was a risky job. On the National Postal Museum Web site is an account of an emergency landing in Baltimore by Merrill K. Riddick on Jan. 14, 1920. He took off from College Park but soon encountered heavy winds. "It kept me working continually," Riddick recalled, "and finally my hands got tired from holding the wheel so I could hardly grip it anymore."

He landed the plane at Dundalk Field, where the wind blew the aircraft backward along the runway for 200 feet. Riddick resigned from the air service that spring.

Brignac, who lives in Dundalk, has odds and ends from throughout the rest of the 20th century. A piggy bank in the shape of an olive-green 1940s sidewalk mailbox is lined up on a shelf next to replicas from later years. Another shelf holds an ashtray from the 1960s featuring Mr. ZIP, a cartoon character the Postal Service used to encourage people to use newly assigned ZIP codes.

He also has a portable metal ashtray issued in the early 1970s, when he first started working at the post office after taking classes at Catonsville Community College. Back then he used to clip one of the ashtrays to a cabinet as he sorted mail, so he could smoke as he worked.

"They didn't want you going outside to take a smoke break," Brignac recalls.

He stopped smoking when it was banned in the post office in the late 1970s, he said. It's just one of the changes Brignac has seen in his time there.

He shares his memorabilia with other postal workers to remind them they are part of history. "This stuff," he said, "means a lot more here in the post office than in my basement."


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