Dated 1920, a Postcard Finally Gets Delivered

by Johnny Diaz | The New York Times

The postcard, faded and weathered, has a postmark dated Oct. 29, 1920, and a green stamp of George Washington, priced 1 cent.

Its message is written in cursive, its front shows a witch and a goose wearing a pumpkin on its head, and its address is to a Mrs. Roy McQueen in Belding, Michigan. It took almost a century to be delivered.

The postcard’s arrival this week has baffled Brittany Keech, the Belding resident who found it in her mailbox with some bills and junk mail, and set her off on a new mystery — how to find the intended recipient or any of the person’s living relatives.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘This is old,’” recalled Keech, 30, in an interview Thursday. “I was shocked. Why is this here all of the sudden?”

A photo by Brittany Keech of the back of a postcard dated Oct. 29, 1920, that was recently delivered to her mailbox in Belding, Mich. (Brittany Keech via The New York Times)

She added, “I would love to be able to get it to a relative who is alive.”

The postcard is a personal family letter, providing the kind of quick update one might send in a text message or in a social media post today. It has a Halloween theme, featuring the gray-haired witch, the goose, an owl, a bat and cat with a broom. It also has a pun: “‘Witch’ would you rather be … a goose or a pumpkin head?”

The letter itself begins, “Dear Cousins,” and details how the writer’s mother has “awful lame knees.”

It continues, “I just finished my history lesson and am going to bed pretty soon. My father is shaving and mother is telling me your address.” Shortly before ending the letter, the writer asks whether Roy got his pants fixed.

A small signature is written on the side of the card and is difficult to read. It may say “Flossie Burgess.”

According to the 1920 census, a Roy McQueen, of Canada, and his wife, Nora, lived at the address where Keech now lives with her husband and two children. Roy McQueen was an agricultural manager and Nora McQueen a housewife, according to a local newspaper from the time. The 1930 census showed that the couple no longer lived in Belding.

It’s not clear where the postcard has been during the intervening decades or why it took so long to reach the address. Letters from years or decades past do sometimes turn up in people’s mailboxes, though a spokesperson for the Postal Service said it was rarely because they became lost in the system.

“In most cases these incidents do not involve mail that had been lost in our network and later found,” said Tim Ratliff, the spokesperson for the Postal Service for the Great Lakes area.

“What we typically find is that old letters and postcards — sometimes purchased at flea markets, antique shops and even online — are reentered into our system,” he said.

Ratliff added, “As long as there is a deliverable address and postage, the card or letter gets delivered.”

Keech first shared her discovery in a Facebook group called “Positively Belding,” a page that celebrates positive news in the city of about 5,700 residents northeast of Grand Rapids. Members of the page said they were amazed by the discovery. At least one person joked that mail can’t be delivered in a timely manner.

Some members, trying to find out more about the McQueens to help Keech, have become sleuths. One person theorized that someone may have bought the old postcard at a store and simply “dropped it in the mail.”

The Postal Service does not comment on how many pieces of mail are considered undeliverable each year. Reasons for such mail include that the recipient is deceased, an attempted delivery could not find the addressee or the address is illegible.

Pieces of mail that can’t be delivered are returned to the sender, the service said.

Lost mail can turn up at the Mail Recovery Center, the lost-and-found department of the Postal Service. Once called the Dead Letter Office, the center works “to reunite undeliverable packages and letters with either sender or recipient,” according to the service.

If the service can’t deliver the items or return them to senders, they are then donated, recycled, discarded or auctioned off. People can visit the Postal Service website to find missing mail.

Keech said that if she could not find a relative of the McQueens, she planned to present the letter to a local museum.

The letter is not the only one to have a decades-late delivery in recent years.

In May, an Indiana woman named Janice Tucker said she received a letter from her brother sent during his time in the Vietnam War. Tucker told WHAS-TV that the five-page letter was not in its original envelope, which had a 5-cent stamp, but was postmarked May 10, 2020, instead. “Someone found this and found out who I was,” she told the station.

Last year, a woman and her brother received a Christmas card postmarked from 1937 and sent by their late grandmother, according to The Billings Gazette in Montana. The letter was believed to have been stuck to the bottom of a canvas mail bag before a postal worker tracked down the relatives of the sender, according to the paper.

In 2011, a Brooklyn couple received a postcard that was dated 1912 with a 1-cent stamp. The card had been mailed in 2011 from Denver, where there had been a show featuring collectible postcards, but it was not clear where the postcard had been for almost a century.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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