In 1953, on his first day on the job, Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield marveled at the size of the United States Post Office Department.
"I thought, 'Five hundred thousand employees! Why, this organization must be as large as General Motors!'" Summerfield told National Geographic magazine in 1954. At the time, postal workers were handling a record number of letters and packages. In 1954 alone, Americans sent an estimated 54 billion items through the post office.
Before mail became largely electronic, the Post Office Department—a predecessor of today's U.S. Postal Service—served one of the most vital government functions.
"It is also the greatest, as well as the most economical of all the social services in our modern society," said Summerfield. "No other agency of government is so close to the daily life of each community or so personal in its relations with our people."
As digital communication becomes more prevalent, the Postal Service has become less involved in daily life but remains one of America's oldest institutions. Like buggy whips and cassette tapes, however, the Postal Service has been marked by temporality. The photos above preserve a moment in time when letters were how individuals reached the farthest corners of the globe and post office warehouses bustled with promise.