There’s a universal thrill that comes from receiving a card or handwritten letter in the mail. For soldiers who have been away from home for some time or for their families who do not have regular contact with them, that “Mail Call” thrill is even bigger and more special.
After Sarah Maune’s son, Jacob, left for Army basic training in July 2016, hand-written letters they exchanged were the main form of communication between them.
The new recruits were given very limited phone access, she said, noting the few phone calls she did receive from him were as brief as 10 seconds long — just enough time to say, “I’m here. I love you. I gotta go.”
In the letters Jacob, a 2015 graduate of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, wrote to his parents in Washington, he wanted to know as much information as he could about what was going on with his family and friends, said Sarah. Letters family and friends wrote back to him were his only connection to home.
Both sides treasured their letters in way they had never before with any other communication.
“If we didn’t have his letters, we would have had nothing,” said Maune. “It would have been 10 weeks or more of wondering — where he was, what he was doing, was he OK, what he was going through . . . It was an exciting day when we’d open the mailbox and see a letter from Jacob.”
An exhibit opening at Washington Public Library this Saturday, Feb. 4, brings insight into that “Mail Call” experience through excerpts from actual letters exchanged between soldiers on the battlefront and their family and friends on home front.
The exhibit, which includes items from the American Revolution all the way up to current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a traveling version of the National Postal Museum’s permanent exhibition. It was organized and circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).
Locally, the exhibit is sponsored by the Washington Public Library, with support from the Friends of the Washington Public Library, Downtown Washington, Inc., and the Missouri Humanities Council.
“Mail Call” explores the history of America’s military postal system and examines how even in today’s era of instant communication, troops overseas continue to treasure mail delivered from home.
The value of those handwritten letters can’t be overestimated. Mail call is a moment when the front line and home front connect. Letters, news and packages from home unite families, boost morale and in wartime, elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Instill a Love for Traditional Mail
Bringing the “Mail Call” exhibit to Washington was no easy feat for the librarians here. Work began more than a year ago after Children’s Librarian Ruth McInnis began looking online for a way to instill in the younger generation a love for traditional mail — an idea presented to her by the staff at Downtown Washington, Inc., the nonprofit organization that renovated the historic post office at Lafayette and Second streets in Downtown Washington before moving its offices inside to begin operating a CPU (contract postal unit) providing mail services.
Families may remember last summer when McInnis held a “Write It! Walk It! Post It!” program at the library, where children wrote letters to Paddington Bear and then walked them a couple of blocks to the Downtown Post Office to be mailed. That was part of the objective to instill in kids a love for traditional mail.
But when McInnis read online about the traveling “Mail Call” exhibit, she knew it was the perfect fit for the Washington community. There were, however, a few obstacles to overcome before it could happen.
One, the exhibit was supposed to be retiring. It had been traveling since November 2012. But McInnis pleaded to have Washington included, explaining the special relationship with Downtown Washington Inc. and its work in historic preservation and running a CPU.
Two, there was a sizable cost to bringing the exhibit here, including getting special insurance coverage. Fortunately, funding was provided by the Friends of the Washington Public Library were able to help, and Downtown Washington Inc. through a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council.
Three, there was an enormous amount of paperwork and preparation work that had to be completed in order for the library to win approval for the exhibit to come here.
“The Smithsonian had to send somebody here to look at the conditions,” said McInnis. “Then there was a lot of paperwork, including getting humidity and temperature readings inside the library, things that had to be done in the building to preserve the integrity of the exhibit and items.
“The installation guide alone is 30 pages long,” she remarked.
The exhibit will be located on the second floor of the library in the space featuring the window alcove facing Lafayette and Fifth streets.
Setup of the exhibit began Monday, Jan. 30. Large metal crates containing the exhibit actually arrived Thursday, Jan. 26, but they had remain unopened for 24 hours to let the objects and artifacts inside acclimate to the building and environment.
All of the furniture had to be moved from the space to make room for the exhibit, which has to be located where a library staff member can always see it.
As the exhibit is being set up this week, it will be kept under wraps so patrons cannot catch even a peek before it opens to the public this Saturday.
Long before the boxes and crates arrived, Washington librarians began organizing a variety of special programs to augment the exhibit. See the sidebar story for a complete list.
“We want to use this (exhibit) as a platform for programming, so we are inspiring the community in different ways to think about the mail,” said McInnis.
“There’s also the feelings that a handwritten letter evokes, how special that is, so we are going to do a six-week letter-writing challenge for people to send six letters, over the nine weeks the exhibit is here,” she added.
More than just letters, that challenge will include mailing postcards, cards, even drawings from a child.
“All of that is fair game, as long as it is being put in an envelope with a stamp and going to the post office and mailed,” said Kim Brumgard, assistant director.
In the library’s art gallery located outside of the first floor meeting rooms, there will be local letters written by Washington soldiers to their families back home and vice versa, said Brumgard, noting copies of those letters are being provided to the library by the Washington Historical Society Museum.
“We are trying to have something that’s cool because it’s our national history, but also bring it down to the local level,” said McInnis.
The librarians say they hope patrons young and old leave the exhibit realizing how valuable all handwritten correspondence is, not just that between soldiers and their families.
That’s why one of the programs will feature local historian Dr. Anita Mallinckrodt speaking about how a treasure trove of ancestral letters brought a family’s history to life.
“So if you go into a relative’s house where you are helping them downsize or clean out things, think twice before you throw out any old letters or correspondence,” said McInnis. “That’s how family history is preserved.
“We want to encourage people to think about how wonderful actual correspondence is,” she added.
“Even just having a sample of someone’s handwriting, how important that is,” Brumgard remarked.
Along those lines, the exhibit will include a guest book where patrons who visit can sign their names.
Teachers of fourth-grade and older students are encouraged to bring their classes in to see the exhibit, which will be open anytime the library is open.
There will be a writing station set up where kids of all ages can write letters to a soldiers to show their gratitude.
“The day the kids are in here for our Valentines for Vets (program), I’m really going to encourage them to do drawings, because they love the drawings,” said McInnis.
Anyone who wants to show additional support for U.S. troops can participate in the collection drive to benefit Operation Gratitude, which “annually sends 200,000-plus care packages filled with food, entertainment, hygiene, and handmade items, plus personal letters of appreciation to veterans, first responders, new recruits, wounded heroes, their caregivers, and to individually named U.S. service members deployed overseas and their families waiting at home.”
A wish list of needed items will be available at the library and inside the Downtown Washington Post Office, where collection boxes will be set up Feb. 4 through April 9.
“It’s a really cool thing, and I think it fits our community pretty perfectly, because we find that historical programs in the library do really well and there is so much support for the military here,” said McInnis.
More About the Exhibit
Throughout American history, the military and postal service have combined forces to deliver mail under challenging — often extreme — circumstances. But whether it takes place at headquarters or in hostile territory, on a submarine or in the desert, mail call forges a vital link with home.
On the battlefront and at home, mail has long sustained the vital connections between military service members and their family and friends. With compelling documents, photographs, illustrations and audio stations, “Mail Call” celebrates the importance of this correspondence.
Visitors can discover how military mail communication has changed throughout history, learn about the armed forces postal system and experience military mail through interesting objects and correspondence both written and recorded on audiotape. The exhibit offers an appreciation of the importance of military mail and the hard work that has gone into connecting servicemen and -women to their government, community and loved ones at home.
“Mail Call” features a number of items that bring to life the story of military mail. One such highlight is a kit with supplies for “Victory Mail,” a microfilm process developed in World War II to dramatically shrink the volume and weight of personal letters. Beginning in 1942, V-Mail used standardized stationery and microfilm processing to produce lighter, smaller cargo — 150,000 microfilmed letters could fit in one mailbag.
Visitors will gain access to dramatic firsthand records and heartfelt sentiments through excerpts from letters exchanged between writers on the front line and the home front. The exhibit also explores how the military postal system works today and describes the new ways the men and women of the armed forces are communicating with home.
From the earliest handwritten letters that took days or even months to deliver, to today’s instant communication via email or the Internet, “Mail Call” presents the changing look and format of mail pieces through the decades.
It also examines the complex operations systems set in place to ensure safe delivery, and it explores the incalculable role mail plays in maintaining the morale of American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.
“Mail has always played a very important role in the lives of the men and women of our armed forces and their families at home,” said exhibit curator Lynn Heidelbaugh of the National Postal Museum. “Writing and receiving correspondence has a significant power to shape morale.
“The relationship between mail and morale is expressed time and again in messages from deployed military personnel, and it is a compelling reason behind the extraordinary efforts to maintain timely mail service.”
The National Postal Museum is devoted to presenting the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of stamps and philatelic material in the world.
For more information visit www.postalmuseum.si.edu.
For more information about the “Mail Call” exhibit, people may call Washington Public Library at 636-390-1070.
Library hours are Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Open House — Saturday, Feb. 4, noon to 4 p.m.
The “Mail Call” exhibit will open to the public.
The art gallery and display cases (both located on the first floor near the entrance) will feature local historical letters and war memorabilia provided by the Washington Historical Society.
From noon to 1 p.m., Civil War-era music will be provided by The South Point Broadcasters.
From 1:15-2 p.m., people can make paracord “survival bracelets” to benefit Operation Gratitude.
From 2:15-4 p.m., a movie about four sisters whose father is away at war will be shown. The movie, released in 1994 and rated PG, illustrates how letters bind the family together.
• Treats for Troops — Feb. 4 through April 9.
A collection drive will benefit Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to soldiers, first responders, their families and more. A wish list of items is available at the library and Downtown Washington Post Office, where collection boxex will be placed.
• Letter-Writing Challenge — Feb. 4 through April 9.
Patrons are challenged to write six letters (or postcards or drawings . . . ) to family members or friends in the nine weeks that the “Mail Call” exhibit is here.
Keep track of your letters on a library-provided log. Upon completion, bring it to the library to receive a “Love My Library” pen.
• Valentines for Veterans — Tuesday, Feb. 14, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Come in to make a special valentine card for a veteran. All valentines will be sent to Operation Gratitude to disperse to veterans nationwide.
All ages are welcome. Holiday goodies will be provided.
• Sailor’s Mail: Memory Keepers Leave Legacies — Tuesday, Feb. 28, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Dressed in historical costume, Marsha Norris Knudsen will honor the World War II generation with a program designed to inspire participants to preserve photographs and record family stories as a legacy for future generations.
• From Knights to Pioneers — Tuesday, March 28, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Local historian Dr. Anita Mallinckrodt, Augusta, will share how a treasure trove of ancestral letters brought a family history to life.
• Gen. Grant’s History of the Civil War — Tuesday, April 4, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Civil War re-enactor Stan Prater will give a lively program on the “war between the states.”