Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ladies' Window at the Post Office

The Ladies Window, New York City Post Office (1875)
The Ladies' Window at the Post Office

Locations: New York, New York; San Francisco, California, Boston, Massachusetts and very likely other major cities in the United States

Founded and closed: Second half of the nineteenth century

It is startling to stumble upon something that was commonplace and unremarkable in another era--and yet totally erased from contemporary memory.

A separate window for ladies at the post office definitely falls in that category.

According to the National Post Museum, letter writing became an increasingly popular activity for women in the nineteenth century. With the increasing popularity of letter writing, women began appearing at the post office to retrieve their mail, just like the men. The mixing of male and female customers within a public place generated a great deal of social anxiety and fear. As a result, "architectural attempts" that segregated men and women and kept "the movements of women from the general view" came into being. In short, the ladies' window.

One of the earliest first-hand accounts of the ladies' window--apparently by an anonymous woman--appears in a March 1855 letter to the New York Times:

Being a stranger in the City, and, having occasion to call at the "Ladies' Window" at the New-York Post-Office, a short time since, I was so much interested in what passed before it came my turn to be served, that I drew into the corner, and, for half an hour, eyes and ears did me as good service as any place of amusement that I have visited in the City.

It was Friday--"Advertising day"--about four o'clock P.M. The snow, which was quite deep, had softened to a most delightful "splosh." Of course, all the mud that formed would not stay out of doors, and the floor of the little room in front of the "Ladies' Window" was covered to an uncertain depth while the "pearly drops" trickled through the roof, upon ladies' bonnets and cloaks, in a most provoking manner.

According to our visitor, most of the customers trudging through the slush and snow so as to retrieve their mail were Irish wives and servant girls. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the male clerk treated them in a high-handed and patronizing fashion--or at least our correspondent recorded the exchanges in a way that reflected that bias:

"Is there niver a letther for Judy O'Brien," calls out a middle-aged, drizzly-looking Irish woman.

"What street?" asks the middle-aged, pleasant-looking gentleman at the window.

"Twenty-Third."

"Did you ever live in Twenty-Seventh-Street?"

"No, Sir."

"Then this letter is not for you;" and obedient to a wave of his hand, she steps aside, and another woman of the same grade takes her place.

"A letter for Thomas O'Flynn, yer honor?"

"Advertised?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"To-day."

The letter is found, and contains money--and the clerk inquires, "Is Thomas O'Flynn any relation to you?"

"Only my husband, Sir." The irresistable drollery, and air of half-offended dignity with which this is said, calls forth a burst of laughter from behind the scenes, and the letter is immediately handed over.

An 1858 issue of Hutchings' California Magazine specifically mentions a ladies' window at the San Francisco post office. In those days, there was a great hubbub when the "mail steamer" finally pulled into the wharf with newspapers and mail bags full of letters from the "Eastern States." In haste, the public would descend upon the post office for the latest news from home:

At the various windows—alphabetically arranged, with about as many letters to each window as, in all probability will make the number of applicants at each about equal—men are congregating in single file, forming long and crooked lines, and patiently awaiting the time when the little window will be opened, from which the treasured letter from some dear and absent one is expected. Who can tell the hope and fear, the joy and sorrow, the love and (perhaps) hate, the good and evil, that occupy the minds of those who thus stand watching and waiting for the little missives.

Further on, too, at the end of the building, and apart from the rest, is the ladies' window; and here stand a row of ladies and gentlemen, waiting as patiently as at the others. The gentlemen, who form part of the line, do so to obtain letters for their wife, or sister, or perhaps sweetheart, or other lady friend; and, if they are there first, they invariably give precedence to the ladies, no matter how many may come, or how long they may be thus detained.

The notion of a ladies' window certainly incited the ire of the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope. Apparently such a thing did not exist in England, as it captured his attention in his mid-century journey through America. In fact, this former post office clerk thoroughly disliked the fact that American women of the time had managed to carve out so much "space" for themselves. As he complained in North America (1862),

I confess that in the States I have sometimes been driven to think that chivalry has been carried too far;--that there is an attempt to make women think more of the rights of their womanhood than is needful. There are ladies' doors at hotels, and ladies' drawing-rooms, ladies' sides on the ferry-boats, ladies' windows at the post office for the delivery of letters;--which, by-the-by, is an atrocious institution, as anybody may learn who will look at the advertisements called personal in some of the New York papers. Why should young ladies have their letters sent to their houses, instead of getting one at a private window? The post-office clerks can tell some stories about those ladies' windows.

The anti-feminist Trollope was clearly fearful that young women were using the ladies' windows to usurp the authority of their fathers and secure the privacy of their private correspondence--so that their letters (perhaps from suitors) were beyond the prying gaze of the family patriarch. No wonder Trollope feared that all these "separate provisions for ladies" would cause women to look down upon their their fathers and treat their brothers with disdain. As for women's rights in general, Trollope clearly harbored no sympathies: "The best right a woman has," he humphed, "is the right to a husband, and that is the right to to which I would recommend every young woman here and in the States turn her attention."

Yet if the ladies' windows afforded young women some modicum of privacy, it did not offer them employment. Women were not hired as clerks to staff the ladies' windows--at least in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1852, just after her husband's death, Mrs. Lucy Newhall Colman applied for a position as a ladies' window clerk (apparently at the Boston Post Office) and was rejected precisely because she was a woman. I imagine that the rejection for this young widow merely strengthened her feminist and abolitionist sympathies. It appears that women were not employed by the Post Office until the Civil War, and even then, at a tremendous wage disparity which persisted well into the next century.

An 1871 article on the New York Post Office in Harper's Magazine assumed a far less alarmist view of the ladies window:

The windows of the post-office for the distribution of letters and the selling of stamps, "in sums less than one dollar," are interesting places to study the cosmopolitan character of our busy population. It is not uncommon to witness people of every nationality "in line," waiting for their turn to inquire for correspendence. The ladies' window is especially a centre of observation; and the appearance of the sex dressed in gay colors and wreathed in smiles lightens up the otherwise care-worn, pell-mell, rushing, and sombre-looking crowd. Here the "young lady of the period" contrasts with the old crone whose undutiful son is "off at sea." The widow in her weeds throws sly glances at the dashing clerk; her hopefulness of the future contrasting strongly with the face of the suffering wife, who, sad and discontented, turns abruptly away because her absent spouse "has failed to write."

So when was the ladies' window abolished? All I can say for certain is that in the 1892 World Almanac, there is a listing for the New York Post Office on Broadway. And at that office on the "entrance floor," one could still find the ladies' window--at section 9 on the "Park Row side" to be exact.

Illustration: The Ladies' Window at the New York Post-Office." Illustrated London News, 1875, artist: Henry Linton. From the Clara Goldberg Schiffer Papers. 

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