A Day in the Life of a Country Postmistress

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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For the past few weeks the media has been hyper-ventilating about the U.S. Postal Service discontinuing Saturday deliveries. Hundreds of small post offices have been closed and more are on the list. This is about one of those.

Erma Dickey Wonstetler was appointed assistant Postmaster of the tiny U.S. Post Office in Signal, Ohio, in 1906, at the same time as her father, Jefferson John Dickey, was appointed Postmaster. She served as his assistant until he retired in 1940, and then succeeded him. The Post Office served about 200 customers and was located in a small general store owned and managed by Mr. Dickey, his daughter, and her husband, Alvin Wonstetler.

A year after her appointment as Postmistress, Mrs. Wonstetler wrote an account of her typical day which she titled, “Highlights of a Country Postmistress in (a) Village Store,” which I’ve excerpted here.

Highlights of a Country Postmistress in (a) Village Store

It is 7:30 A.M. when I throw open the doors of the Post Office and Store for the daily routine.

In walks Chuck, “Give me a 3-cent stamp and a pound of baloney. I want the baloney sliced thin and I want one of them there big stamps, ’cause Mom wants this letter to go in a hurry and I think the big stamp is the fastest. Don’t you?”

Then Bruce speaks up, “I’d like a dimes worth of Cartwheels and a Money Order. Mother put the money in the envelope and said you’d know how to fix it. Be sure it goes on this bus, ’cause she is getting me a football and I need it, you bet.”

Then in comes Helen, saying, “Mike wants this letter C.O.D. and give me three Air Mail stamps.” “But, Helen, what is the amount of C.O.D. you want?” “Oh, I don’t know. Mike said you’d know.” (I didn’t) consequently, Helen had to make another attempt with her letter.

Then Paul says, “Aunt Erma, give me the keys to the basement and I’ll fix your furnace while you write a money order for my Dad and be sure and get it in this mail.”

They all act as if there never would be another mail.

Soon in comes Don on his bicycle to catch the school bus. He is about crying, for a dog chased him, threw him off his bike and tore the knee out of his pants. He says, “Oh, Aunt Erma, would you sew up my pants. I can’t go to school like this.” So, in all my rush I fixed Don’s pants and sent him to school happy.

Now it is time to get the 8:23 mail out and ready to sort the incoming. Then I hear such as:

“What? No Plain Dealer this morning? That same thing happened about four months ago. It’s surely some mail service. I’ll bet it’s laying up at Lisbon’s Post Office and they never got it in the mail. I’ll just write to the Plain Dealer and let them know about this service.”

“Isn’t this the morning for the Ohio Farmer?” “No, tomorrow is the day.” “Oh, I thought it was today.”

“Hey you! Didn’t I get a package?”

“Say, is there any mail for the teacher? If there is, he asked me to bring it down.”

“Aunt Erma, will you call my Mom and tell her the package didn’t come.”

A lady came running in and said, “Did you see anything of my Country Gentleman? Well, that’s funny. It was supposed to be here yesterday and here it is today and no Country Gentleman, (I) suppose the Postmaster or Clerk hasn’t finished reading it yet.”

“Oh, Mrs. Wonstetler, would you please fix this horse collar up and send it back for me. We got it from Sears. They are a few cents cheaper than yours (Dickey & Wonstetler sold horse collars in their store), but they made a mistake and sent the wrong size. So here’s a quarter. You just send it back and if that is not postage enough, will pay you when I come back. Much obliged.”

“Missus, Missus, me got cheese, send me daughter and her man in Detroit. Me no got box send him in. Me know you fix him up. You fix him up good, me bring you cheese for your trouble.” Your stomach is so upset you can scarcely tie up the rotten stuff. It takes all summer to make this cheese, it is made in two pound cakes, as hard as a board and all green with mold, but still he thought that that would be nice for my trouble. I told him I couldn’t eat cheese.

Then the phone rings. “Hello, Erma? I hate awfully to bother you, but would you please look and see if I got a package.” After walking forty feet from the phone to the office and back, “Sorry, but no package.” “No package! Well, that’s funny. I sent to Montgomery Ward’s only day before yesterday and not here yet. I’ll write and tell them a thing or two. Why, I’m entertaining the Ladies Club tomorrow and I just got to have those paper napkins and Jello.”

Man’s voice, “What! No old age pension checks today? Well, that beats the deuce. They hardly give a feller enough to live on and every month get later. It surely beats the devil how the government runs things. We should be getting $40.00 and they just give us a measly little $24.50. I’d like to tell them fellers a thing or two.”

Then in comes John, another foreigner, “Where’s the Missus? Me want send Jim Brown for fence. Me no figure up how much me need. She good figuring, she get him for me.” So, I get busy to figure how much fence it will take for John’s farm, make up his order, send his money order and John goes home happy till he needs another order.

“Say, how much bigger are these stamps gonna get? No wonder the Post Office Department is in the red!”

“Has the mail gone yet?”

“Do I have time to write a card before the mail goes?”

And so on throughout the day. This is a cross section of life in any one of our 45,000 post offices. And it’s an interesting, entertaining day, especially in a small town office. It’s a great life!


Can you imagine walking into a Post Office today and asking them to wrap a cheese or figure how much fencing you needed to order?

ILLUSTRATION: A postmaster peering through the Postal cubical window in an unidentified general store. The window is surrounded by brass-fronted postal boxes and well-stocked store shelves can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

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