By Mary Rothlisberger
As the last vestige of a communications commons, the social relationships formed within and through the United States Post Office are unique and complex. Intimacy and institution collide in the rural post office, which often serves as the social fulcrum (both publicly and privately) of remote communities. Rural communities rely on the post office to provide critical space for community news, both by word of mouth across and around the conversational space of the counter and through bulletin boards for local announcements. Many rural communities are hours away from a metropolis and depend on the post office for regular delivery of essential goods such as medicines, equipment, seeds, newsletters, and family correspondence. The small-town postmaster is also a necessary community mediator, being one of the few citizens who knows and interacts with every resident.
Architecture roots this government agency in place and time, from post offices built by the Works Progress Administration to frontier schoolhouses repurposed for mail collection to bunker-style government strongholds on Tribal lands. In developing rural towns, the necessity of a community post office (for communication and for commerce) often demands improvisational architecture: the post office reflects the vernacular language of the built environment where it is situated. In other cases, the post office is deliberately placed or rehabilitated by the government and therefore reflects the institutional trends of the time, such as the complex place-based murals commissioned for each post office built the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
This photo essay is a slow drive across America, a patient research project, and a love letter to the USPS.
Mary Rothlisberger is a citizen artist with an emphasis on cultural empowerment in rural and under-recognized communities. Her work is conversational and research-based, in response to the social, built, and natural environments we situate ourselves within.