Over the past decade, the artist Mary Welcome has zealously photographed about 1,170 U.S. post offices. Most of her subjects are unassuming, one-story structures in rural towns. At these post offices, the number of customers per day is often dwarfed by the number of stripes on the American flag waving outside. (Thirteen, if you’ve forgotten.)
Welcome started her project, God Bless the USPS, long before the U.S. Postal Service became the politicized headline-maker it is today, swept up in the maelstrom of President Trump’s unfounded claims that mail-in ballots will ensure a fraudulent election. Her endeavor began as a love letter, so to speak. Her images, which she posts on Instagram with the handle @godblesstheUSPS, document the interplay between bureaucracy and community, formality and whimsy. “It’s structured and systematized, but it’s also people-powered,” she says of the Postal Service. “The interactions are so deeply human in such a mechanized space.”
As a kid, Welcome, 37, leaned heavily on the Postal Service for connection. Her parents were both in the Army, and their family moved every two years. During the 1990s and 2000s she watched the Internet transform quotidian physical practices like writing and shopping into digital experiences. Still, she remained devoted to snail mail.
Welcome snapped her first post office photograph in her adoptive hometown of Palouse, a rural borough in southeastern Washington just a couple of miles from the Idaho border. The town’s post office looks like something Smokey Bear might live in — a little brown wooden building with a similar design ethos to National Park Service ranger stations. A gang of green-thumbed residents tends to the roses that grow out front.
Welcome stops in at the post office almost daily when she’s in town. “I keep a lot of correspondences,” she says — pen pals, fellow artists, family and friends. (Her first pen pal relationship started when she moved away from California after third grade. She and her homeroom teacher wrote to each other for the next 10 years.)
Living in Palouse was an education in the vital social and economic role post offices play in rural communities. For one, far-flung residents often have P.O. boxes rather than individual mailboxes outside their homes. The post office is, then, a place visited regularly, rather than just at the holidays or on a rare stamps-and-envelopes run.
Rural Americans often don’t have access to other mailing options such as FedEx or UPS. The Postal Service — with revenue of $71?billion last year — is required to serve the whole country, including remote areas where private companies don’t deliver because it’s not profitable. In the communities Welcome visits, the next-closest post office is often a 30- or 40-mile drive away.
This universal service mandate can make rural outposts particularly susceptible to financial stress. In the age of email correspondence and online shopping, Americans rely on the Postal Service less than ever before. Rural postmasters often have to reduce store hours or cut overtime for mail carriers to avoid getting shut down.
They don’t always take these orders lightly. In the face of recent pushback from rural communities, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy agreed in August to postpone a controversial swath of cost-cutting measures until after the November election.
Welcome, too, is distraught by Republican proposals to privatize the nearly 250-year-old system. “I don’t want to live in a world without the USPS,” she tells me in a video call. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that we’ve made as humans.”
As a self-identified “cultural worker” and “artist-organizer,” she’s more interested in a community’s engagement with her work than the art’s particular aesthetics. She has facilitated artist residency programs, collaborated with small towns on pop-up art shows, and created immersive exhibits that explore the connections between people and the landscapes that surround them.
She takes her photographs at whatever time of day she happens to drive by a post office. Each one appears dead center in the frame. Most of the images are devoid of people — a natural byproduct of the towns’ small populations. In a quick scroll through the God Bless the USPS Instagram feed, the eye catches commonalities: American flags, blue mailboxes, “US Post Office” in a sans-serif font.
But by and large, the buildings are more different than they are alike. Parochial quirks abound: There’s the Wild West-style general store-slash-post-office in Volborg, Mont. The white structure with peeling paint in Niotaze, Kan., that looks like it’s about to keel over with exhaustion. The cream-colored, vinyl-sided building in Enning, S.D., that houses a post office, mercantile and saloon.
Post office design has gone through a number of architectural trends over the years. In the first decades of the 20th century, most post offices were built in the French Beaux-Arts and neoclassical styles favored for public buildings at the time. In the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program paid for the reconstruction of many older post offices. Art deco was the style du jour, and artists hired through the Works Progress Administration created elaborate murals inside.
“The question of ‘How should we build?’ has really been the central question of postal architecture from the very beginning,” says Jesse Vogler, a designer and also a post office junkie. Vogler wrote a thesis at the University of California at Berkeley on the tension between efforts to standardize post office architecture and honoring local architectural traditions.
Vogler befriended Welcome after learning of her work a few years ago. They share a guiding belief in the importance of noticing the human elements within massive systems. “Extending attention to our everyday environment is the first step in taking care of our world and our communities,” he says. “USPS buildings are models of collective infrastructure and shared access to a resource.”
On the subject of shared resources, Welcome says she is still working on developing a comprehensive, searchable digital repository for her collection. Only a small sampling of her images has made it to Instagram; the rest are stored on a jumble of hard drives.
Between her stints in Palouse, Welcome likes to take long, meandering road trips. She never uses GPS, preferring instead to drive around an area until she locates a post office — or not. A recent 6,000-mile ramble through the Midwest and West yielded about 150 photos for her collection.
She abstractly dreams of visiting every post office in the country, but she’ll have to change her strategy if she wants to achieve that goal. The nation has about 31,000 post offices, which means Welcome has photographed only about 4 percent of them.
“It’s an endurance project,” she says, grinning and undeterred. “In the meantime, I’ll keep taking drives and paying attention and sending letters. It’s life’s work.”
Mikaela Lefrak is a reporter and host at WAMU-FM (88.5).