Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You've Got V-Mail

When a colleague encountered something unfamiliar while working on a collection of documents and asked me if I knew anything about "V-Mail," I thought she must be referring to some new and exotic form of electronic mail. I was unaware that the term “vmail” was currently used by some people as shorthand for voice mail. But rather than the present, her question led to the past and a form of mail devised in exceptional circumstances—World War II—and making use of technology, albeit of a non-electronic kind.

A little digging and a helpful web page turned up a wealth of details on the subject of V-Mail. It turned out that the V stood for Victory, a word ubiquitous in the discourse of the Allied war effort, which had already seen the promotion of Victory gardens (to grow vegetables on the home front) and the sale of Victory bonds (to raise money from the public). V-Mail referred to a process whereby correspondence being sent to troops overseas was microfilmed to reduce its physical volume so as to free up space on cargo planes for war material.

The basic V-Mail program was fairly simple. One used standardized stationery on which to write letters; the letters were then microfilmed, and the microfilm was then shipped overseas, where it was developed and then delivered. But behind this lay a formidable logistic undertaking. Processing centers had to established, both in the United States and abroad, requiring significant amounts of personnel and equipment. Eastman Kodak was awarded the contract for the microfilm machines, and V-Mail detachments were created in the postal units of the armed forces. Three regional centers were established in the United States (San Francisco, New York, and Chicago) to process V-Mail, along with numerous stations overseas.

The archives has a number of promotional posters that stress V-Mail’s reliability and speed and suggest that it was the “most patriotic” way to send mail to troops. One poster details the savings that V-Mail created in terms of cargo space. Its morale-boosting importance was another theme, captured in the slogan “You write, he’ll fight.” Of course, like other mail sent during wartime, V-Mail was subject to censorship.

The V-Mail program lasted from June 1942 until November 1945, but the mail itself has survived and thus remains available. The same may not hold true for e-mail, at least in its electronic form. As technology and formats change, files may not always remain recoverable, a challenge with which archivists are beginning to grapple.

A fuller description of the specifics of the V-Mail program can be found at the National Postal Museum section of the Smithsonian Institution’s web page.

Political Poster Collection, US 7299, Hoover Institution Archives

Political Poster Collection, US 7298, Hoover Institution Archives

Political Poster Collection, US 7297, Hoover Institution Archives