by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
The nature of mariners’ work requires they maintain a near-constant state of motion and migration, shipping out from port to port frequently. Like today’s workforce, seafarers who stopped in the Port of New York during the 1920s often found themselves a long way from home. Nearly one-quarter were foreign workers, and many American sailors often had no home to speak of, living instead at “sailors’ homes” like the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) 25 South Street headquarters while in between ships. Of the many services provided at 25 South Street, SCI’s post office offered a meaningful connection for seafarers to life on land.
Take away today’s Internet and wireless communication and one might start to get a sense of how much traditional letters sent by “snail mail” mattered to seafarers back when SCI opened its million-dollar home for sailors at 25 South Street. During that year (1913) the Institute first offered 65 postal “call boxes” for use by mariners. Prior to establishment of the post office, letters sent to a sailor at sea would typically follow him from port to port, often arriving long past their expected arrival date. Many letters never arrived at all, leaving seafarers out of touch with their families, heightening their isolation.
Seeing the need for a fixed location where seafarers could have their mail delivered, SCI began what would become one of its most popular services. Described as the “heart of the Institute,” the SCI post office soon became a congregating place for those who had recently arrived in port. Purportedly, some seafarers clipped coupons and sent for catalogues just so they would have something waiting for them when they arrived back in port. Others received letters from worried parents, wives and children, desperate for contact after months of work at sea. As SCI’s newsletter The Lookout described in 1920, the post office “reaches out with firm but gentle hand, and catches the drifters on life’s seas, and draws them to the safety of the raft of their past….”
SCI increased the number of post office boxes for seafarers to 900 by 1927 and offered the boxes at a discounted rate compared with other post offices in New York. Constant work sorting mail and responding to inquiries required intense attention to detail. The clerks held mail at the office for up to six months to account for seafarers’ lengthy voyages. (Typical post offices at the time held mail for only ten days.) Finally, with the workload continuing to increase, the federal government agreed in 1927 to take over operations of the post office at 25 South Street. By then, SCI’s post office handled as much mail as a town of 20,000 people, and 25 South Street had become one of the most well-known addresses in the world.
The address may have been a bit too well-known in some cases. According to an anecdote from the February 1940 Lookout, a seafarer was surprised to receive a letter in a bright pink envelope heavy with the scent of perfume from a girl he met in Le Havre, France. The man told the clerk that he had taken the girl to a movie and then they had said their goodbyes when he left port, “thinking the case was closed.” Unexpectedly, and apparently much to the young man’s chagrin, “along came the pink letter from Mademoiselle explaining naïvely that he had neglected to give her his address, but never mind, she knew that all American sailors get their mail at 25 South Street….”
The post office at 25 South Street is now long gone, but SCI continues to connect seafarers to life back on land and their loved ones around the world. SCI’s International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark and Bay Area International Maritime Center in the Port of Oakland offer money wire transfer services, telephones and provide free Internet access so seafarers can use social media or webcams to connect with families back home. Seafarers can also arrange to mail packages or get phone cards, which SCI chaplains bring with them for seafarers unable to get ashore.
While technology has changed dramatically since the days of 25 South Street’s bustling post office, the spirit of helping seafarers keep in touch with loved ones and make connections remains very much alive at SCI.