The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Soldiers and the Mail
It’s no wonder that this photo of soldiers sorting holiday mail is such a favorite on the Commons. It clearly tugs on the heart strings of those who know (or try to imagine) what it would be like to be in the military and away from family and friends during the holidays. But aside from that, the juxtapositions in the photo are pretty hilarious: a hockey stick; a spare tire; crushed boxes clearly marked "Fragile," and "GLASS—With Care"; and some awkward facial expressions on the soldiers working to sort through it all.
One box in particular, labeled "From BETTER HOMES Club Plan, Cambridge, Mass," caught my eye. Flickr user walterkeenan added a helpful tag and link on the box. Some more research helped me discover that Better Homes Club Plan was a catalog club plan located in Cambridge, Massachusetts whereby subscribers could receive house wares, linens, clothing and toys by mail order. This got me thinking: would a hardy 1940s military man really be receiving the Knowle’s China Company’s charming Floral Pattern teacups or a Cannon Mills green floral-printed tablecloth? Or maybe this package was meant for a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) or WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) member who was simply eager to make a homey environment while she bunked up in less-than-quaint barracks?
Perhaps I’m being close-minded, but considering the packages in our photo (wouldn’t the military provide spare tires for their own vehicles?), I’m somewhat skeptical that these soldiers were actually working at any military Army & Air Force Post Office (9/24/09: Flickr user walterkeenan helpfully pointed out that the Air Force didn't actually come about until 1947—I just mean to point out here that this photo probably wasn't taken in a military post office). As Flickr user copsunited1 mentioned in the comments, during this time period, it was often a challenge for the postal service to handle the great volume of mail coming through during the holiday season. In fact, on December 19 of 1944 (probably the same year as our photo), a New York Times headline remarked, "HOLIDAY MAIL PEAK IS DUE TOMORROW: Soldiers, Service Men’s Wives Recruited to Aid in Record Rush at Postoffices."
But in the end, it really makes no difference where or for whom these servicemen worked to sort through this mountain of packages. This image charms because it speaks to the can-do spirit of the WWII era and the timeless joy of receiving holiday gifts through the mail.