"Neither Snow Nor Rain ..." Is Not the United States Postal Service's Motto (or Policy)

iStock.com/Willowpix
iStock.com/Willowpix

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." If this motto summons up visions of brave postal workers trudging through inclement weather conditions, you're not alone. For more than a century, it's been synonymous with the tireless work the postal service does to make sure you get your junk mail, magazines, and birthday cards on time. But if you think it's the official creed of the United States Postal Service, think again—it was actually written about another set of postal workers from around 500 BCE.

In fact, the USPS doesn’t have an official motto [PDF]. And given that the postal service regularly cancels mail delivery due to weather—as is the case this week in parts of 10 states in the Midwest—the misunderstanding about its motto regularly leads to even more frustration from mail-less customers.

Blame a building for the confusion. In 1912, a building then called the General Post Office Building (since renamed the James A. Farley Building) was constructed in what would later become ZIP code 10001. Smack dab in the center of Manhattan, the grand structure was built right across the street from Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden. It had prime real estate and a profile to match, including white columns, a grandiose reception hall, and even a dry moat around it to light up its gigantic basement.

It also had an architect with a taste for classical flair. William Mitchell Kendall designed other column-studded sites like the Manhattan Municipal Building and the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Kendall, whose dad was a classics scholar, also loved the words of the ancients as much as their columns. So when he designed the General Post Office Building, he decided to inscribe it with a phrase by Herodotus, the Greek scholar sometimes known as the father of history.

Kendall modified a translation of Herodotus's work by George Herbert Palmer, a professor at Harvard and a preeminent classicist, for the building. The line was written by Herodotus in paragraph 98, book eight of The Persian Wars, which recounts the history of a war that took place between the Greeks and the Persian Empire from 499 to 479 BCE (the exact time period of the war is disputed).

Herodotus was impressed by the efficient, relay-like postal system employed by the Persians, which he compared to the Greek torch race. "There is nothing in the world which travels faster than the Persian couriers," he wrote admiringly. The postal system may have been impressive, but it ultimately didn't help Persia; after decades of conflicts, they lost the wars.

The Persians may not have won in Greece, but the Persian couriers who inspired the inscription must have been on to something. To this day, the USPS relies on a relay-like system to both get mail across the country and assist postal carriers on their daily rounds. They may not operate in all weather conditions, but today's USPS still manages to deliver hundreds of billions of pieces of mail each year. Not bad for an organization with no official motto.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2016.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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