Yale has many historic traditions — “Bright College Years,” Handsome Dan and The Game to name a few — but not all of Yale’s traditions are listed on the admissions website. One such tradition is our routine verbal flogging of Yale’s postal services, which has been recorded as early as 1878.

One hundred forty-five years of complaining beg the question: is it due to systemic issues within the mail, or is it Yalies’ lack of institutional awareness? While writing my recent column on the mail, I went down a rabbit hole, searching for the answer. Primarily motivated by a desire to do anything except study for my upcoming midterms, I sat in the basement of Marx library, sifting through thousands of headlines each search query yielded, building a comprehensive timeline of Yale mail. When I wasn’t in Marx, I ventured to Old Campus and compared the post office’s current state to the old fire insurance maps. 

This quest may seem inconsequential; it’s just the mail, after all. But in my search to discover the hidden secrets of the postal universe, I discovered that the long history of complaints about the mail stemmed from a multiplicity of factors. I mentioned a few of these in my column, but there was one common theme I left out that I believe requires more thought.

We’re ignoring the real problem.

It’s so easy to get out of touch with reality here. To become blind to the incredible beauty of our daily lives and forget to acknowledge the immense sacrifice that goes into each and every aspect of Yale. It’s more than stuffing letters in boxes; it’s a complex system that involves intense labor, management and people’s livelihoods. So what’s really the problem with Yale mail? Why is it so expensive and inconvenient? Why don’t students receive mail for free like at other universities? What is it about Yale that makes an ostensibly simple issue so hard to fix?

The “Yenesis”: 1800s-1900

To answer these questions, we need to go back, way back, to the “Yail” big bang. Between 1850 and 1900, Yale mail consisted of a single carrier. He would rise early in the morning and make his way down to Union Station to pick up the heap of mail off the fast train from New York. Without the luxury of modern transportation, he had to carry the mail a mile to Old North College (a student dormitory that used to exist on Old Campus and was later destroyed) 2-3 times a day. Sources estimate that the number of stairs he had to climb carrying this heavy mail pouch reached the thousands. It didn’t matter if the train was late — he was overburdened with this excess of mail or if the New England weather was foul. Nothing stopped Yalies from declaring it “manifestly unjust” if he arrived with the mail after 9 a.m. The pervasive racism and classism of the Gilded Age were also manifestly unjust, but have you considered the situation of these poor Yalies? They had to wait until after they’d eaten their breakfast just to read their hand-delivered mail. This was clearly a gross violation of justice, a transgression of the most despicable nature that urgently needed to be addressed by the University. 

To silence these qualms, Yale opened the very first university post office in the United States in 1900. But even this was met with resistance from the students, as an 1899 article claimed: “The matter of a campus post office has been suggested, but it is rather doubtful if it could ever be made a success.” They argued that the solution was maintaining decentralized delivery locations and hiring an additional carrier, which is an entirely reasonable contention. But Yale was determined to revolutionize the mailing world with its shiny new post office in Fayerweather Hall — where Branford College now resides.

The Roaring Yalies: 1900s-1920s

In the first few decades, it was relatively successful and even underwent renovations in 1906 and 1911. The Fayerweather post office even survived World War I with minimal complications, other than a price increase of a few cents in 1917. The most unfortunate logistical problem that came with the war was mailing Christmas packages to troops in France. With three times the population of 1917 and less than half of the number of military personnel, it’s difficult to imagine the war’s gravity for Yale students and the general population. It’s almost a statistical certainty that many Yalies had friends who were legitimately “in the trenches,” and the USPS was virtually the only means to send a message to them. During this period, the usual mail complaints were replaced with articles about the war. The only time the mail was ever mentioned was in reference to communications with troops. Reading the News of this period reveals a stark, and almost touching, contrast to Yalies’ usual out-of-touch whining about their first-world problems. 

By 1929, the volume of mail had grown to 13,000 letters a day. This was partially the result of Non-university members using the post office, which prompted student animosity. Due to this overcrowding, the University decided it had outgrown Fayerweather Hall. 

The Dawn of Wright Hall: 1930s

Yale Station moved to Wright Hall in 1931, where it still resides today. During this decade, four clerks would make their way to Wright Hall at dawn, arriving at 6:30 a.m. While they may feel the urge to yawn or rub the sleep out of their eyes, they couldn’t distract themselves with thoughts of their pillows or focus on the pain in their fingers from the repetitive task of putting the 10,000 letters that came in daily into their respective cubby holes. If they wanted to avoid student temper tantrums, they needed to finish this monumental task before the “thundering horde” stormed in at 9:00 a.m.

World War Blue: 1940s-1960s

The “thundering horde” is a common theme throughout Yale’s postal history. In 1943, Yale packed away its fancy books and paintings into bomb shelters and replaced them with military training facilities for the thousands of cadets on campus. The world was at war, and not even Yale could escape it. Glenn Miller and his Jazz Orchestra may have been regularly broadcasting from Woolsey Hall, but that is not to overshadow the amazing performance of the U.S. Army’s Temporary Post Office at Yale. Located in the basement of the Ray Tompkins House, the staff of nine was managed by Sergeant McLeod, a former Los Angeles postal clerk who ran a tight ship. A mere two hours after the postal truck made its daily drop of 13,000 letters, each of the 3,000 cadets had their mail, and the letters for relocated servicemen were sent to their next stops. Whether it was from fear of the Sergeant or preoccupation with the global conflict, there was a lack of mail-related complaints during World War II.

By 1946, the war had ended and Yale’s mail volume had doubled. To add insult to the injury of cramped spaces in Wright, Yalies were notoriously bad at labeling their packages, which Mail Superintendent Albert D. Antonio was justifiably vocal about in several statements to the News. It’s rather ridiculous that Yale students couldn’t write an address properly and then had the audacity to complain about late packages. Improperly addressed packages, which most often omitted a box number, took longer to pass through the system because the postal clerks had to check each student’s name with a master directory and find the box number — this was before CTRL+F. 

This proved a serious problem in 1950 when national mail regulations changed and parcels not labeled with the box number had to be returned to sender, or sent to the dead letters office if they were missing a return address — another common labeling transgression. With the end of two world wars and the Great Depression came a return of incessant whining. In March of 1950, law students housed in former barracks had somehow managed to complain so severely about the mail that Yale decided to rescind their mail privileges altogether.

Yalies continued to abuse the postal system — and animals, unfortunately. In 1947, as part of a global federalism movement, Yalies attempted to mail 500 baby turtles with the slogan “Hurry, Work for the World Government!” on their shell. How incredibly out of touch with reality does one have to be to abuse so many living creatures as part of a campaign for world peace? Animal cruelty and theory-practice contradictions aside, the manilla envelopes these poor turtles were carelessly stuffed in were improperly labeled, violating section 595 of postal law at the time. 

This wasn’t the only time Yalies violated postal law. In the 1950s and ’60s, Yalies were using the mail as part of a chain letter scheme, taking advantage of gullible peers and wide-eyed freshmen. It was essentially a pyramid scheme, but in the post-war economic boom, people had money to waste — think cryptocurrency. The rampant consumerism of this era, combined with young investors’ lack of experience, resulted in the rampant spread of these schemes on college campuses. But on Yale’s campus, it typically involved government bonds, and there was even a lottery version. The scam reached such an extent that Yale received a warning letter from the Postal Inspector, threatening fines or imprisonment. 

Growing Pains: 1960s-1980

Throughout the 1960s, Yale was steadily growing in size, which proved a challenge for the ever-tightening space of Wright Hall. Yale attempted to find a new post office in 1962, citing space and labor as the two central problems. Who would have thought?. Yet, the effort to fix the mail was trivial compared to other institutional issues. During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement spread across college campuses, Yale included. Yale clearly had more imperative concerns, such as establishing an Afro-American Studies Department and Cultural Center in 1968. But some students were still causing such an uproar about the mail that it prompted a response from the mailmen in 1967. Yale Mail was receiving between 500 and 4,000 pieces of misaddressed mail every day. In 1968, the Station was handling four tons of mail a day on a $50,000-a-year budget. For context, Yale spent $4 million on “other” in that same year.

The political unrest of the ’60s didn’t leave the mail untouched, but the problem of space in Yale Station was justifiably set aside. In 1969, the first class of women — a.k.a. “Superwomen” — came to Yale, prompting some spatial reorganizations. This resulted in significant outrage from male students who didn’t want to move dorms and prompted Yale to consider housing women in Wright Hall, above Yale Station. 

Admitting women wasn’t Yale’s only brilliant idea in 1969; the genius proposal of decentralizing the mail system was a novel concept that could still be implemented today. Rather than delivering all of the mail through the USPS in the “pit of despair” that was Wright Hall, Yale would administer its own deliveries to individual mail slots in each dorm door. Unfortunately, this proposal has been repeatedly rejected. In 1973, Yale Station suffered another onslaught of complaints about mail inefficiencies, as well as the implementation of new postal regulations which almost closed the post office. But Yale kept it open, proliferating the cycle of politics and clamor surrounding postal operations. 

Increased publicity resulted in increased public scrutiny, but no change. In 1978, one student even accused the postal service of stealing brownies that were mailed to her, and the postal service responded by claiming, “It is a tribute when people get so upset.” The response cites statistics of a less than 1 percent mishandling rate nationwide and in New Haven. Yalies disagreed, and to prove the post office wrong, the News mailed 15 sample letters and found an error in three letters’ postmark and a two-day delay. Putting aside the News’ questionable data-gathering practices, perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is that Yale Station probably had a bad week or two. But the post office listened anyway. To make space for the students’ emotional outbursts, Yale Station soon installed a new customer complaint box. 

Robots, Revolts, and Ronald Reagan: 1980s-1990s

The 1980s ushered in the digital age at Yale, which promised to improve some of our mail-related grievances. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky. Yale’s technological advancement moved just as slowly as the mail, meaning email could not suffice as a substitute. It may seem like a blessing that Yalies back then didn’t have to deal with the hundreds of emails from clubs you thought you unsubscribed from, but the mail endured much worse — Ronald Reagan was coming for the USPS. Under the Reagan Administration, Congress cut 1.2 billion dollars from the USPS’s budget. These laissez-faire-esque policies aimed to encourage consumers to use private mail services instead of the USPS, a solution Yale students had been advocating for years. But not everyone benefited from “Reaganomics,” especially the government employees whose livelihoods depended on the postal service. 

This conflict between Yalies, Reagan’s Congress and postal workers had turned Yale Station into a pressure cooker, and the 1988 postal union protest was just the beginning. Postal workers picketed along Elm Street, protesting the budget cuts which negatively impacted their work hours and income. Lower budgets diminished their ability to provide higher-quality service, which only fuelled the flames of student malcontent. Something had to be done to fix this and, as a typical hallmark of laissez-faire policy, the burden of funding shifted to the consumers. 

In 1991, P.O. Box fees increased by 500 percent. This led to more debate, especially in the News. An article on March 6 of that year detailed how the USPS was a government monopoly on the mail. With constant support from the federal government and an absence of competition, the USPS lacked the incentive to improve the efficiency and price of its service. It contended that the post office was becoming obsolete and no longer had any real claim to serve public interest. Reforms to the postal service were unlikely to pass because they would be militantly opposed by five enormous postal unions and organizations “whose total ranks [exceeded] that of any federal agency except the Defense Department.” 

While the article’s subsequent attack on postal employees was inappropriate conjecture, there is some truth to the claim that the USPS has been historically ineffective. Reagan wasn’t the first president to declare war on the USPS. Calvin Coolidge detested bureaucracy in any form, and his vetoes of USPS spending bills were met with mass clamor. I’m not making any claim for or against laissez-faire capitalism. The central problem is that Yale ignored the government’s mission to drain the USPS’s lifeblood. It was time for Yale to reconsider a University-run postal service, but Yale refused to put the station out of its misery. Naturally, the only things that drained were student wallets and employee working conditions. 

A later 1991 article illustrated how severely Wright Hall had declined since its early days. The workers were stuffed into this dismal, dirty basement and expected to sort masses of mail in a space so inadequate that it failed postal inspections. Despite the workers’ best efforts, it would be impossible to run a quality service in those conditions, which only led to an increase in student frustration. Imagine having to do such difficult and depressing labor without much control over certain circumstances, only to be hated by the people you’re trying to serve. This was a reality for postal workers in the ’90s. 

Another unfortunate reality of the ’90s postal workers was the fear and tension surrounding the mail. In 1993, tragedy struck Yale when the Unabomber mailed a package bomb to computer science professor David Gelernter’s office. Gelernter survived and, despite being the victim of the worst mail incident in Yale’s history, he blamed Ted Kaczynski, not the mailman. If only Yalies had the same instinct not to shoot the messenger. 

They did not. 

Students continued to whine about box fees and postal errors, prompting heated retorts from staunch defenders of the USPS. William Gibbs, the 1992 station manager, wrote a letter to the editors. It contained valuable insight: postal regulations prevent the USPS from exclusively sorting university mail, so it must be delivered in bulk to a university representative. Yale considered several proposals to fix the mail such as sorting its own and installing individual mail slots in each dorm door. Then came enlightenment: Yale conveniently has a post office right on campus! This way, students can pay for their own P.O. boxes and the university doesn’t have to deal with funding the mail! Thus, they opted for the cost-efficient approach of doing nothing.

This overwhelming trend of poor labor conditions being ignored by institutions persisted. By February of 1997, postal workers around the nation were infuriated, detailing their frustrations in a list of grievances. From unpaid lunch periods to lack of leave, unions bargained with the Postal Service to secure better working conditions and ultimately reached an agreement. The employees could finally have decent working conditions and the mail could at last be improved — or so they thought. When Yale began subcontracting to avoid employing expensive union workers, this marked a critical breaking point in the ever-escalating war between Yale and the USPS. 

On a crisp November afternoon that year, a group of spirited postal workers formed at Beinecke Plaza. Frustrated with the University’s betrayal, the protestors brought signs and one of them shouted their grievances through a megaphone in the direction of Yale President Rick Levin’s office. As the sun descended toward the horizon, the angry shouts of the workers dressed in winter coats and caps united into a single chant: “No Justice, No Peace!” There were more protests in 2000, but nothing substantial came of them. Yale Station remains in Wright Hall, with the nearly same archaic system these workers fought against. 

Properly ‘addressing’ postage

History shows that Yale Mail’s perpetual condition of understaffing and underfunding in Wright Hall has produced nothing but inefficiency, conflict and worse conditions for postal workers. 

So where do we go from here?

To start, we need to arrange our institutions with respect to justice first, then cost-efficiency. Improved working conditions and labor investment are a prerequisite for enhanced service. With a University-run postal service, administrators would hold the University-run postal system accountable, incentivizing Yale to improve service. We must think qualitatively instead of quantitatively in our vision for a better mail system. 

As postal patrons, we need to reconsider how we treat the people who take care of our mail. It’s not “just the mail”; an immense amount of effort goes into many of the privileges we take for granted. Yale’s brilliance is dazzling, but don’t let your Bright College Years render you blind to your fellow human.

Justice promotes prosperity. By shifting our institutional paradigm towards quality over economy — and away from elitism and towards kindness — perhaps Yale can end the “manifestly unjust” treatment of its postal employees. Maybe then we can finally have peace in the post office. 

We could also opt for the classic Yale approach: doing absolutely nothing while the mail deteriorates. After all, whining about inconvenient postage is part of the historic “Yale Experience.”

FAITH DUNCAN is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact her at faith.duncan@yale.edu.