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

iStock.com/bgwalker
iStock.com/bgwalker

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

Wood,
John,
Mass 

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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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Victorian Women Worked Out, Too—They Just Did It Wearing Corsets

Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
ivan-96/iStock via Getty Images

The next time you’re gasping for breath in the middle of a cardio routine, try to imagine doing the same thing while decked out in a flowy dress and corset. That’s what female exercise enthusiasts faced in the 1800s.

According to Atlas Obscura, tailors weren’t churning out loose leggings or stretchy tracksuits for women to don for their daily fitness sessions, and workout guides for Victorian women were mainly written by men. To their credit, they weren’t recommending that ladies undergo high-intensity interval training or heavy lifting; instead, exercises were devised to account for the fact that women’s movements would be greatly constricted by tight bodices and elaborate hairstyles. As such, workouts focused on getting the blood flowing rather than burning calories or toning muscle.

In his 1827 book A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises, Signor G.P. Voarino detailed dozens of options for women, including skipping, walking in zigzags, marching in place, and bending your arms and legs at specific angles. Some exercises even called for the use of a cane, though they were more geared towards balancing and stretching than weight-lifting.

To Voarino, the light calisthenic exercises were meant for “counteracting every tendency to deformity, and for obviating such defects of figure as are occasioned by confinement within doors, too close an application to sedentary employment, or by those constrained positions which young ladies habitually assume during their hours of study.”

Nearly 30 years later, Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister) published her own workout guide, Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families, which encouraged educators especially to incorporate exercise programs for all children into their curricula. Beecher was against corsets, but the illustrations in her book did still depict young ladies in long dresses—it would be some time before students were expected to change into gym clothes at school. Many of Beecher’s calisthenic exercises were similar to Voarino’s, though she included some beginner ballet positions, arm circles, and other faster-paced movements.

Compared to the fitness regimen of 14th-century knight Jean Le Maingre, however, Victorian calisthenics seem perfectly reasonable. From scaling walls to throwing stones, here’s how he liked to break a sweat.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]