Margot Owett was riffling through the day’s mail in her townhouse in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, one recent evening when she came upon a faded black-and-white postcard of a charming house with a wraparound porch.
“How lovely,” she thought.
She flipped it over. In the “address” box was her address, but someone else’s name. It carried only a 1-cent stamp. And it was postmarked August 1912.
“My jaw dropped,” Ms. Owett said.
Had the postcard just now arrived at 288 Warren Street for the first time, after being lost in the bowels of the United States Postal Service for 99 years? Who was Miss E.F. Iggulden, the intended recipient? And who was the mysterious Robert, whose only message was his signature, penciled in with flair, the “R” ending in a series of dramatic loops? Was he, as Ms. Owett’s mother speculated on Facebook, a suitor whose beloved married someone else, after she never heard from him?
City Room set out for answers.
First, we enlisted the help of the crackerjack New York Times researcher Alain Delaquérière, who found 1910 census records listing a 4-year-old Elizabeth Iggulden as one of three children living in one of three households at 288 Warren Street. (A 1920 census record listed her middle initial as F.)
That would have made her about 6 in 1912. So much for romance. Who was Robert, then? Her brother Charles, who would have been about 20 or 21 at the time, may have had the middle name Robert: Mr. Delaquérière uncovered a World War I draft card for a Charles Robert Iggulden of Brooklyn. It bore a signature not unlike postcard-Robert’s.
As for the place pictured on the postcard, the Holy Trinity Holiday House, in Brookhaven, on Long Island, Mr. Delaquérière found that it was used by the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights as a vacation destination for mothers and children. A 20-year-old man may not have been welcomed as a guest there, so maybe Robert was not Charles Robert, but a child whom Elizabeth befriended.
But where had the postcard been for the past century?
It was postmarked in Brookhaven, on the afternoon Aug. 28, 1912. But just above the postmark is a hint that it may have been resold at a flea market: A penciled-in “5 —.” A postcard with the same picture and a 1913 postmark was recently available on eBay for $10.
Could someone have just slipped the postcard through Ms. Owett’s mail slot, obviating the postal system? Ms. Owett grilled her son Gideon, 17, who had taken in the mail that day. He assured her that it had been tucked in the middle of the pile, not rested on the top or placed at the bottom.
We then called Darleen Reid, a Postal Service spokeswoman.
“Could the postcard have been lost in the mail system?” we asked.
Ms. Reid was skeptical, pointing out that it couldn’t have been stuck in a piece of equipment because it isn’t the same equipment since 1912. On the other hand, she said, if it had been mailed recently, it shouldn’t have made it through the system with 1-cent postage.
Ms. Reid called the supervisor of the Cadman Plaza post office in Brooklyn Heights, which would have been the postcard’s last stop before Warren Street. The supervisor did not recall seeing it; nor did the letter carrier.
“Does the postcard have a fluorescent bar code?” Ms. Reid-DeMeo asked.
“A what?” we asked.
These days, she explained, mail is stamped with a fluorescent-orange bar code. If Ms. Owett’s postcard had one, that would mean it had gone through the mail system in modern times.
Ms. Owett had not noticed the fluorescent bar code at first. But if you squint the right way, there it is.
Last week, Ms. Reid agreed to have Jim Martin, the in-plant support manager at the postal system’s Morgan Processing Plant in Manhattan, inspect the bar code.
Using a sensor so powerful that he had to wear goggles to protect his eyes, Mr. Martin cracked the code. The postcard, he determined, had been mailed from Denver, where it was processed sometime between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, on the 13th day of a month — which month he could not say — within the past year.
Mail from Denver should take about one to three days to arrive in Brooklyn, so the 13th made sense: Ms. Owett and her husband, Ken Olshansky, received the postcard on May 17.
Then there’s this: On May 6 and 7, dealers and collectors had gathered for the Denver Postcard & Paper Show, featuring antique and collectible postcards.
Maybe not. But still, why spend $5 on a postcard, only to drop it in the mail? Was it some sort of mail-art project? A prank?
“That’s a very good question,” said Dede Horan, a postcard dealer who runs the Denver show. “I’ve never done it personally, but maybe someone decided to do it.” Her theory: A busy postcard dealer with a messy desk.
Because the postcard already had a postmark, Ms. Reid said, the insufficient postage would not have been detected by the machinery in Denver that sorts and cancels mail. The postcard would have read as canceled and been moved along.
The letter carrier, Ms. Reid-DeMeo said, would have had to notice the 1-cent postage and brought the card to a supervisor.
So does that mean if you re-mail a letter that has already been delivered, it may well re-reach its destination? Yes, Ms. Reid said, unless an actual human being catches it. But, she said in a follow-up e-mail, anyone who did so intentionally could face “prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
Had the letter carrier noticed the 1-cent stamp, and the fact that the postcard was addressed to Miss Iggulden, the Postal Service would have “done everything within our power” to locate her, Ms. Reid said.
That would not have been easy: Our researcher was unable to find what became of Miss Iggulden. The Social Security Administration has a record of an Elizabeth V. Iggulden of Buffalo having died in 1990, but Iggulden appeared to be that woman’s married name.
Next stop in the postal process would have been the recycling bin, though a postcard from 1912 would have been sent to the postal system’s historian, who may have ordered it displayed somewhere.
Instead, the postcard will live at 288 Warren Street, where it was destined not once, but twice.