Before Email, There Was V-mail

A history of the method used to transmit letters during World War II

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During World War II, microphotography was used to transmit letters between servicemen on the front lines and their loved ones back home. This not-so-instant-messaging system was known as Victory Mail (V-mail for short). Messages written on specially designated stationery were microfilmed and shipped to processing facilities where the photographs were enlarged, printed and then distributed. Need a visual aid? This newsreel should do the trick:

Why all the fuss? Simple: V-mail messages were much lighter and smaller than a regular letter, meaning that more messages could be transported by airplane. To put this in perspective, one 16mm by 100 feet roll of V-mail film weighed 5.5 pounds and could hold up to 1,700 messages. A mail sack holding the same number of letters weighed about 50 pounds and occupied a considerable amount of cargo space. "This was designed to be fast and frequent, kind of like the email of today" says Lynn Heidelbaugh, curator of the National Postal Museum's Victory Mail Exhibition. "Jot a few words down rather than go on for pages and pages."

The United States used this mail delivery system between June 15, 1942 and April 1, 1945, in which time over 550 million pieces of V-mail were sent overseas. But, in spite of speed, regular first class letters endured as the preferred means of communication.

Heidelbaugh offered me an explanation as to why this was the case. "You get a photograph of the handwriting in miniature of what the original was so you don’t get the perfume on the stationery or when someone drips extra ink on the paper—those kinds of things. It’s one step removed from the personal first class letter."

If you’re looking to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day this weekend (it’s tomorrow, December 7, for those of you who have forgotten or aren’t old enough to remember the day that will live on in infamy) check out the National Postal Museum’s Victory Mail exhibition, which includes a colorful assortment of artifacts from vintage advertising to examples of the V-mail letters, which serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that those serving our country have made on our behalf.

It also reminds me of how bad my handwriting has become since the digital age rolled in. So are handwritten letters still relevant?

"I think people approach it in a very traditional way," says Heidelbaugh. "This is a media that you put time into and you can see it in how you express yourself in a letter versus an email, which are a form of shorthand. But there are letters still being sent. I was recently reading about holiday card programs for military service members overseas—there’s nothing like getting that tangible letter or a card. People attach a lot of meaning to having that personal piece from home."

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