Records and Policies of the Post Office Department Relating to Place-Names

Excerpt from: Reference Information Paper No. 72 
(Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1975)
Compiled by Arthur Hecht and William J. Heynen.

Post Office Policies on Place-Names

The first official reference to the naming of post offices by the Post Office Department occurred in 1891. On February 18 of that year, Postmaster General Miscellaneous Order 87 alerted the clerks, first those of the Division of Appointment and the Division of Bonds and later those in all branches of the Department, to use the spelling of post office names published in the bulletins of the United States Board on Geographic Names, which in 1906 was given the authority to determine and change place-names. The following 12 principles relating to geographic names in the United States were recommended by the Board in 1933:

  1. Retain euphonious (harmonious-sounding) and suitable names of Indian, Spanish, or French origin.
  2. Rarely apply names of living persons; only those of great eminence should be so honored. 
  3. Avoid long and clumsily constructed names and those of two or more words. 
  4. Adopt spelling and pronunciation sanctioned by local usage. 
  5. Do not restore the original form of changed or corrupted names. 
  6. Use the most appropriate and euphonious name sanctioned by local usage when there is a choice of two or more names for the same place. 
  7. Avoid the possessive unless its omission destroys the euphony of the name or changes its descriptive application.
  8. Drop the "h" in "burgh." 
  9. Use the word "center," not "centre," as part of the name unless local usage or legal documents require the latter.
  10. Do no use hyphens in connecting parts of names. 
  11. Omit the letters "C.H." (courthouse) appended to names of county seats.
  12. Avoid the use of the words "city" and "town" as parts of names.

The Board decided that names adopted either by legislative enactment or charter are authoritative. It concluded that there are three types of names: names transplanted from abroad and usually assigned through sentiment without reference to topographic similarity or to geographic relationship, names of Indian origin, and casual, whimsical, and freakish names. 

On April 14, 1892, Postmaster General Miscellaneous Order 48 directed the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General not to establish any post office whose proposed name differed from that of the town or village in which it was to be located. Whenever possible, the name of the pst office was to be the same as that of the local railway station to avoid confusion and delay in the transfer of mail between the Railway Mail Service and the post office. Postmaster General John Wanamaker permitted appeals of his order upon submission of a written brief setting forth in full all the facts and reasons why uniformity of name was not practicable. 

Possibly the most important instruction on the naming of post offices was issued in Postmaster General Miscellaneous Order 114, April 9, 1894, as follows:

"To remove a cause of annoyance to the Department and injury to the Postal Service in the selection of names for newly established post offices, it is hereby ordered that from this date only short names or names of one word will be accepted. (Names of post offices will only be changed for reasons satisfactory to the Department.)"

To clarify such an order, specific instructions pertaining to the naming of post offices appeared on form 1011, Location Paper (geographic site location report), issued by the Post Office Department. The use of prefixes, such as "East," "Old," "New," "North," "South," or "West," and additions, such as "Burg," "Center," "City," "Corners," "Creek," "Cross Roads," "Depot," "Hill," "Hotel," "Hollow," "Junction," "Mill," "Mound," "Peak," "Plains," "Point," "Port," "Prairie," "Rock," "River," "Run," "Ridge," "Store," "Station," "Springs," "Town," "Vale," "Valley," or "Village," was considered objectionable. Such prefixes or additions were thought likely to cause confusion and delay in the transmission of the mails. 

The same directive suggested that several names be submitted in order of preference to allow for rejections by the Department. One geographic site location report, for example, suggested either Brainerd, Beldens Falls, or Beldens, Addison County, Vt., for the name of the office. 

Uniformity in the spellings of names is cited in Postmaster General Miscellaneous Order 417, December 7, 1894. The officials of the Post Office Department and of the Postal Service were ordered to standardize their records "in the orthography of the names of post offices to that used in the lists of post offices contained in the Official Postal Guide." 

The last instruction of the 19th century relating to post office names occurred in Postmaster General Miscellaneous Order 189, March 20, 1896. Postmaster General William L. Wilson cautioned that in the preparation of post office names for the Postal Guide there should be no changes in spelling, abbreviation, or otherwise, except as authorized by the Postmaster General or his Fourth Assistant. 

The annual reports of the Postmaster General for the years 1896 through 1904 show that in the naming of post offices it had been the policy of the Bureau of the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General to assign plain, simple, single-word names. This policy, however, was frequently undermined by local conditions. A sentiment emanating from some historical incident or business interests of the locality sometimes created a desire for a special name that did not conform to the rules. In deference to such sentiment or interest, the Post Office Department found it necessary to accept variations. 

Today the Post Office Department (now the U.S. Postal Service) chooses the names of post offices from lists of proposed names furnished by local patrons.

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