Patti Lyle Collins, Super-Sleuth of the Dead Letter Office

Today the lost and found department of the United States Postal Service is called the Mail Recovery Center, which isn’t a very evocative name. But it used to be called the Dead Letter Office, and at the turn of the last century, a widow named Patti Lyle Collins was its star employee. 

Until World War I, all letters with incomplete, missing, or illegible addresses passed through the “tomb-like quarters” of the Dead Letter Office at the postal service’s central office in Washington, D.C. Toward the end of the 19th century, the postal service was swimming in undeliverable mail—about 7 million letters each year, according to one account. Rising migration both within and to the country, combined with comparatively low literacy, had produced a mass of mail with undecipherable addresses—considered “dead” unless the crack detectives of the Dead Letter Office could interpret them.

To handle the rising tide, the post office hired a number of retired clergymen (deemed trustworthy enough to handle the money often inside the mail) and dozens of women, whose deft analytical skills, the postal service felt, were well-suited to untangling the confusing scrawls arriving en masse at post offices around the nation. These postal detectives used reference books, travel guides, and their own super-sleuth skills to help the letters find their rightful home. (If they failed, the letters were incinerated or pulped.) 

Patti Lyle Collins, who began working in the Dead Letter Office in the early 1880s, was queen of them all. She reportedly handled about a thousand almost-dead letters a day, cracking the addresses on almost all of them. In 1893, Ladies Home Journal called Collins the office’s “presiding genius.” One source in 1901 called her "the greatest living expert in deciphering illegible and defective letter addresses.” Collins specialized in “blind readings”—deciphering mail that appeared as clear to the average postal worker as it would have with a blindfold on. 

Born to a wealthy Southern family, Collins showed an instinct for languages early on, which her family encouraged with study and travel. By the time she came to work for the post office—after a series of family deaths and misfortunes left her a widow with three young mouths to feed—she was proficient in half a dozen foreign languages. Her work helped her develop an encyclopedic knowledge of historical and geographical associations and local terminology, as well as an instinct for the handwriting styles, home towns, trades, and other idiosyncrasies of various immigrant groups then moving to the country. She even knew which specific logging and mining camps tended to employ various ethnicities. 

Many of her cases drew on her deep familiarity with family names and geographic terms. In one example, Collins took an envelope with the address “Miss Isabel Marbury ... Stock,” and had it delivered, correctly, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, knowing that Marbury was a common last name in that town. In another, she was asked to figure out where an item addressed to a resident on an unnamed “Island” should be sent. She got the letter delivered to the right place by posting it to West Virginia—knowing a portion of that state was commonly referred to as "The Island.” 

Collins also understood how mangled pronunciations might translate into incorrect written addresses, which allowed her to decipher “Tossy Tanner, Tx,” as Corsicana, Texas, “Lacy Jane, Kansas,” as La Cygne, Kansas, "Bruklin, Vilene Bur" as “Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” “Reikzhieer, Stiejt Kanedeka” as Roxbury, Connecticut, and “Cikepu Kornsors, Levynworth Co.” as Kickapoo City, Leavenworth County, Kansas. 

Needless to say, she was probably a bit of a genius. She could also treat addresses like visual puzzles: One of her most mythical accomplishments was figuring out that


should be delivered to John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts. 

She was even able to decipher the addresses on hundreds of waterlogged letters that had fallen into the sea when the steamer Oregon wrecked in 1889, with the help of some powerful magnifying glasses. In other cases, her mind was the magnifying glass: years at the dead letter office taught her that people would sometimes write Niagara as Saratoga (and vice versa), that they tended to bungle the common place name “Bellevue,” and they often made mistakes like writing "Goose Bay" for "Duck Creek,” “Foxville” for “Wolfville,” or “Steertown” for “Oxford.” 

In some cases, her perseverance went above and beyond the call of duty: At one point, a letter arrived from a woman in England pleading for the address of a brother who had moved to Massachusetts 15 years before. The only information provided was the man's name and the fact that he was a weaver. Collins researched the locations of factories in Massachusetts, investigated which ones employed Englishmen, and finally found the man in question. And when the Dead Letter Office received a letter a few years later from Scotland with just the man's name and street address, Collins remembered the city and state and had it sent to the right place. 

When a letter came in addressed to a Reverend Wells in Johnstown, Tennessee, staff were initially befuddled to discover that no such town exists. But Collins remembered seeing a sign for a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee, where the later President Andrew Johnson had worked, and guessed correctly that the association between Johnson and Greeneville might have transformed Greeneville into “Johnstown.” She was right, and the letter found its intended recipient. 

“It is like the alphabet, absolutely simple when the art is mastered,” Collins once said of her work. At a time when few women worked outside the home, Collins was considered indispensable—the wizard of her department. And in an era before Google, it’s amazing to think how much knowledge was stored in one woman’s mind—and what vanished with it.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More


This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.


Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances


- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games


- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets


- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs


- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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A Wide Difference: When Shoulder Pads Reshaped the 1980s

Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
ABC Television

At some point in the 1980s, a mandate was handed down from CBS network executives concerned about the excesses of the costume designers on their hit primetime soap Dynasty. Specifically, they wanted stars Linda Evans and Joan Collins to stop wearing shoulder pads, the rigid foam accessory that gave their profiles a distinctive V-shaped appearance.

Word quickly came back to CBS: Defiantly, Evans and Collins would not be shedding their pads. According to Nolan Miller, the show’s costume designer, the stars “almost mutinied.” Their exaggerated shoulders were there to stay.

For most of that decade, shoulder pads were as ubiquitous a fashion statement as neon colors and Ray-Bans. Though American women might not have gone for as severe and steep a postural precipice as the Dynasty stars, the pads were nonetheless emblematic of the era. Pitted against chauvinistic attitudes about women in the workplace, feminine style took on a physically assertive stature. But that idea didn’t originate with television stars. It was rooted in a response to the domestic work crisis during World War II.

From protective gear to feminist wear

Joan Crawford is all padded up and ready to square off with Moroni Olsen in Mildred Pierce (1945).Warner Home Video

Before the war, shoulder pads were perceived as a glamorous but impractical clothing flourish or as part of protective football gear. In 1931, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli showcased high fashion styles with the look, the purported result of being influenced by surrealist artwork. So did fellow designer Marcel Rochas. But international evolution was slow to make it to the States.

It wasn’t until costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg dressed actress Joan Crawford in a stylish padded look for films like 1932’s Letty Lynton all the way through 1945’s Mildred Pierce that the wide-profile approach drew national attention. (It’s believed that Greenburg was struck with inspiration at the sight of Crawford’s large shoulders, and opted to accentuate rather than try to hide them.)

That admiration gave way to purpose when women began taking on new roles in the domestic labor scene. With men fighting overseas, women took to the pads as a way to better assimilate into a physical world. Their silhouettes became more angular, more defined, and broader—a subversive announcement that their role was professional and equitable. With shoulders raised to meet those in a padded men’s suit, the pads worked to establish conformity in the workplace.

With resources during wartime scarce, these pads were often made of wool, cotton, or even sawdust. But as the war wound down and men began returning to their old work roles, the pads lost much of their utilitarian purpose. Shoulders began to slope once more.

Shoulder heights rise again in the '80s

Joan Collins and Linda Evans compete for biggest shoulders with John Forsythe as judge in Dynasty.ABC Television

Because fashion is often cyclical, it wouldn’t take another global conflict for shoulder pads to rise again. Designer Norma Kamali was reported to have reintroduced them into casual daywear in 1980. Coupled with the decade’s newfound edicts of material wealth and gender equality, the pads surged in popularity. Women’s attire was once again squared off. This time, it wasn’t just about office appearance. Designers saw potential in the ability of the pads to reform the female body, making the waist appear smaller and even helping to make up for bad posture. Some were even customizable. On Dynasty, Linda Evans and Joan Collins each had unique pads. Evans preferred a thicker foam, while Collins hated them touching her neck.

The pads were not without controversy. Some blouses were designed for pads and sold without them, necessitating an additional purchase in order to prevent the clothing from sagging. Unless they were sewn in, the pads could easily become dislodged, creating peculiar anomalies as they slid down the arms or torso. Purse straps could shift their position. And if a person wasn’t careful, they ran the risk of doubling or tripling up on the pads, with a layer each in a blouse, sweater, and jacket. The resulting puff threatened to brush their earlobes.

Thanks in part to the influence of celebrities and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who favored the look, the power pad trend endured for most of the ‘80s but disappeared along with much of that decade’s ostentatiousness by the 1990s. While they still make periodic comebacks on fashion runaways, foam shoulder enhancement is now considered poor form.