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Interpreting the Evidence

Railway Mail Car, 1925

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Railway Mail Car, 1925 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Interior of a railway mail car, 1925.
Historical Context
Moving the U.S. mail by railroad increased after the Civil War in the mid-1800s.  Mail that had remained in mailbags as it was transported by rail was now actually emptied and sorted by workers as it traveled to its destination.  By the early 1900s, post offices began to be built as close to train stations as possible to increase the efficiency of transport and delivery.  

Postal clerks, who rode the trains, were tested and required to sort 600 pieces of mail in an hour.  The postal clerks worked together and were willing to help each other out.  They even developed their own language related to their work.  For example, the word “nixie” referred to a letter that couldn’t be sorted or a letter with an incorrect address.  The word “bum” referred to an empty mailbag or a mailbag that was damaged.  When these mailbags were tossed out before leaving the station, the clerk could be heard yelling, “Throw the bums out!”

Essential Question
How does culture and economy influence communication?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the influence of culture and economy on this form of communication?
Historical Challenges
Throughout history, what were the different forms of transportation that were used to deliver mail?
Research how the U.S. Postal Service has been affected by the creation of e-mail.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: If you worked as a mail sorter for an eight-hour day, how many pieces of mail would you handle?
English Language Arts: While you are sorting the mail, an envelope opens and out falls the letter. It reads…
Art: Design a stamp that represents something in our current society today.