A new mailbag is stiff, unyielding. When it has knocked about the world, had the starch taken out of it and its weak places discovered, it grows pliable, gives when it can’t force its way and is now prepared to do business successfully. Like a human being, the mailbag has had its experience.
– New York Sun, 1894
Context is Key, Grasshopper
If you were one of the few people who read my blog post last time, then you know I have been trying to identify some mysterious artifacts from our excavations out at Driftwood last summer. While I didn’t get many comments on the blog post, I did get lots of comments on my personal facebook page from friends who wanted to help me out. Everyone seemed to think that it was some kind of grommet, and while I agreed with them part of me knew that there was more to this item than just your run-o’-the-mill brass fastener.
But with a universe full of possibilities, how could I ever figure out what this thing came from with any degree of confidence? My head was swimming with questions and it was frustrating to not find any answers. Thankfully, a comment from one of my friends in archaeology, Ron, put me back on the right path. His one word of advice that helped me figure it out? Context. Why look through a world of choices when the context this artifact was found in can give me all the clues I need to go on. I knew where the grommet was found, how deep it was, what kind of soil it was surrounded by, what other artifacts were found nearby, as well as the history of the immediate area (both from documents and local residents). Couldn’t all these things help me narrow down my search? I was excited to keep looking.
So what did all these lines of evidence point to? Based on the memories of local residents, as well as the age of the other artifacts we were finding in the area, I was beginning to think it might be something related to the old Pinellas Post Office.
Big Bayou & the Pinellas Post Office
By 1876 the community around Big Bayou, located just south of what is now St. Petersburg, FL, had come to be known as Pinellas Village and was beginning to thrive. It even boasted a hotel and one of the first post offices on the Pinellas peninsula. This post office was located in a cottage along the shore, and early settler John Bethell held the office of postmaster for fourteen years before being replaced in the job by first his daughter Mary, and then his wife. In 1907 the Pinellas Village post office closed for good and was moved to the new town of St Petersburg.
The current financial woes faced by the U.S. Postal Service have caused many small post offices to close in recent months. While distressing for many people today, in the past the closure of a town’s post office would have been nothing less than a death blow to the community. For early settlers in the Tampa Bay area, the opening of a post office in your town was a sign that the community had finally arrived. Not only were (and are) they important as a place to pick up the mail, but also as a place to meet your neighbors, do business, and gossip about the events of the day. The Pinellas post office was just as important to the small community developing around Big Bayou during the late 1800’s, and with its removal Pinellas Village soon became only a memory.
Are You There Smithsonian? It’s Me, Becky
So, a post office… but what artifacts might I expect to find from a post office of that time period? Thankfully, I remembered that there is a fantastic museum in D.C. dedicated to just such information. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has an incredible collection of postal history, and their website has lots of pictures of items from throughout the history of the postal service (fun to look through even if you aren’t id’ing artifacts!) One item in particular caught my eye, a mailbag from the 1940s that used a system of loops and grommets very similar to the one we found to close the top of the bag. After taking a break to do a victory dance around my office, I sent an email to the experts at the Smithsonian to see if similar grommets were used on bags from the late 1800s. The Curators at the National Postal Museum are of course very knowledgeable and helpful, and were able to confirm that grommets of this type were used on mounted mailbags from the late 1800s. We had found a piece of postal history along the shores of Big Bayou!
The Importance of a Single Artifact in Context
Rae touched on this in her last blog post, and I have to agree with her sentiment. Sometimes one artifact can make all the difference in understanding a site. While we knew the Pinellas Post Office had been somewhere in the area, if it wasn’t for this one artifact there would be no tangible evidence that a post office ever existed there. I have to admit, it was exciting to find this artifact. But it was even more exciting to put all the lines of evidence together and figure out what is was, and what it meant about the history of Pinellas Village.
The mailbag this grommet came from must have seen a lot, and if it were a person I wonder what kinds of stories it could tell me about the history of the area. It would have traveled frequently from the then sleepy town of Tampa across the bay on some small boat till it reached the relatively uninhabited shores of Big Bayou and the Pinellas Post Office. While Tampa and the Pinellas Peninsula have changed dramatically since then, only through the combination of the memories of longtime residents, historical documents, and the archaeological remains we found out at Driftwood it is possible to piece together the history of Big Bayou and get a taste of what it might have been like to live around Tampa Bay more than 100 years ago.
Special thanks to Rebecca Johnson, Lynn Heidelbaugh, and Nancy Pope at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum for all their help in identifying this piece of Pinellas postal history!
1996 St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream 1888-1950. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Bethell, John A.
1914 Pinellas: A Brief History of the Lower Point. Press of the Independent Job Department, St. Petersburg, FL.
1893 The Story of Our Post Office: The Greatest Government Department in all its Phases. A.M. Thayer & Co. Publishers, Boston, MA.
United States Post Office Department
1973 Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971: Florida. National Archives, Washington D.C.