On April 21, 1906, three days after the terrible San Francisco earthquake, James Graves Jones dispatched a letter to his family in New York, informing them that he was safe and also describing the devastation in the city. The letter read:
Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner—got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Potrero Ave., R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and North of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great moral victory.
More with paper and stamps. James G. Jones
What’s unusual about this correspondence is that it was written on a piece of shirt collar that James G. Jones had apparently yanked out his shirt, and was posted without stamps. Yet, it was delivered to his family.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, people were desperate to get in touch with their families, and just like cell phone networks would jam after a calamity, overburdened with everyone calling and messaging each other, the bottleneck then was paper and stamps. The post office quickly ran out of postage stamps, forcing them to accept mail until a fresh supply of stamps arrived at the post office. James G. Jones didn’t even have paper in hand, so he tore his shirt collar off and scribbled a brief message, ending with a promise to write more once paper and stamps became available.
The San Francisco earthquake caused considerable damage to many post offices across California, requiring the postal service to conduct operation from makeshift tents. Many postal workers remained at work during the crisis, rescuing mail and assets from damaged offices, as well as providing general service to the people. Telegraph operators continued transmitting messages until fast approaching fires forced them to leave their posts.
A post office operating from a tent after the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Photo: Library of Congress
Later, San Francisco Postmaster Arthur G. Fisk reported to the postmaster general:
Yesterday afternoon, upwards of ten thousand telegrams were deposited in this office for delivery. During the height of distress, much mail was received in this office without being properly prepaid in stamps. A feeling of humanity necessitated their receipt and handling, but I have stopped the wholesale receipt of such matter and have issued instructions and published in the newspapers the information that all mail matter must be properly stamped.
Mail that was posted without stamps, were received at the receiving post office, where the postage due was assessed and the fee was collected from the recipient of the letter.
Sale of postage stamp resumed on April 25, only a week after disaster struck.
Post card looking east from the post office. Photo: Carol Giles-Straight
# Marvin Murray, Smithsonian National Postal Museum
# Beth Slutsky, The Power of Historical Documents to Make Sense of Crises, UC Davis
# 1906 Post Office Report, San Francisco History