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.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

20 Memorable Virginia Woolf Quotes

Getty Images
Getty Images

Born on January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—which is no easy feat.

1. On recorded history

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance,Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician

2. On writing about nature

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. On translating comedy

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

—From the essay collectionThe Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. On time

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

5. On being an honest writer

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. On sexism

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

7. On writing fiction

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

—From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. On questioning the status quo

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. On fashion

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

10. On food

virginia woolf

A photo of author Virginia Woolf, who was famous for writing To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

George Charles Beresford, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. On getting older

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

—From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. On artistic integrity

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. On the universe

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

—From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. On personal growth

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

—From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. On society

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

16. On evaluating literature

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

—From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. On passion

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

—From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. On the past

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

—From Jacob’s Room

19. On words

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

—From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. On life and its interruptions

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

bonus: a common misquote

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.