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Post Office Facing Slips from the RMS Titanic

Twelve printed and hand-stamped facing slips, dated 10 April 1912

Name-stamped “O. S. Woody” and circular date-stamped “Transatlantic Post Office 7 AP 10 12”, the number “7” identifying the vessel and “AP 10 12”, the date April 10, 1912

4.75 x 3.2 in. (12 x 8 cm.)

The RMS Titanic was the finest ship of her time, the very best in “naval architecture and marine engineering”. She was built for comfort, providing luxurious transatlantic travel for her first-class passengers with palatial suites, beautifully-decorated dining rooms, extensive promenades for strolling, and various spa treatments. She was superior to the competition for even her second and third-class passengers, with better accommodation and food. The Titanic however was much more than a passenger ship and the clue to this was in her name: the RMS in RMS Titanic stood for Royal Mail Steamer. The Titanic was designated as an official Transatlantic Post Office, contracted to both the United States Government and His Majesty’s Royal Mail to transport millions of letters and parcels between Britain, France, Ireland, and the United States.

The twelve post-office facing slips that comprise this collection of Titanic memorabilia are among the rarest of items: works on paper that survived the icy, salt waters of the North Atlantic, and a sinking ship, and which made it back to shore. These twelve slips belonged to Oscar Scott Woody, a United States postal sea clerk who was stationed on board. Woody was one of five clerks, two British and three Americans, who were responsible for every item of mail on the ship. Facing slips were official documents whose use was stipulated by Acts of Congress and implemented by the Post Office of the United States government. Sea postal clerks had to follow rules and procedures – and no detail was too small not to be mandated. This included everything from what to wear while on duty to how mail was processed and organized. Facing slips were an important element of this.

On Wednesday, 10 April 1912, the Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage. From Southampton in England, it sailed to Cherbourg, in southern France and then on to Queenstown (now Cobh), near Cork, in Ireland. In each location, tens of thousands of pieces of mail was brought on board. The post office proper was on one of the upper decks “with a view of expediting the reception and dispatch of the mails on the departure and arrival of the ship”. Many decks below this, on deck nine (Orlop deck) was the mail sorting and storage room.

The postal clerks had to sort, record, bundle and store all the new mail brought on board. Letters and parcels were organized according to their final destinations. Once this was completed, the clerks would bundle these individual items until they had a large enough stack to tie together with a twine string. Before the twine was knotted a piece of paper would be placed face-up, on the top of the bundle. This paper was called the facing slip. Individual bundles were then placed inside a sack and an identical facing slip was placed in a special label slot. The facing slips indicated the destination, the name of the person who made-up the bundle, the date, and the post office’s postmark. Providing this information was a legal requirement (even the number of knots made in the twine that held the bundles together was pre-determined). On the twelve surviving slips it is possible to read Woody’s hand-stamped name, “O. S. Woody”, and the date of embarkation “AP 10 12”. The facing slip served several important purposes by both indicating to every worker the destination and making every clerk accountable for the accuracy of their own work. Postal Regulations stipulated that “all facing slips be of uniform size” and “be prepared before going on duty” which is why the dates on the surviving slips coincide with the first day the Titanic set sail.

Once the mail had been sorted into bags and tagged with the facing slips it was transferred to the storage rooms on Orlop deck for the remainder of the journey. When the ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 on the night of Sunday, 14 April 1912 while sailing 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, it was dark and extremely cold. It must also have been chaotic and disorientating, but Woody and his four co-workers attempted to save the sacks of registered mail. These must have weighed around 125 pounds each and had to be carried up from the 9th deck (Orlop). They prioritized rescuing the mail over their personal safety. One ship steward recalled last seeing them waist-deep in water on a ship that had been engineered to be “water-tight”. At 2:20 AM on Monday, 15 April – the same day that Woody would have celebrated his birthday - the Titanic sunk. 

The White Star Line, the Titanic’s owners, requested the assistance of any available ships for rescue and recovery. The Cunard line’s CS Mackay-Bennet came to help and this cable ship (CS) quickly became a morgue. None of the postal clerks survived but Woody’s body was recovered wearing a cork lifejacket that made his body buoyant in the water. His personal belongings were gathered from him and returned to his widow including a set of keys used to secure registered mail and a collection of his unused facing slips. It has been suggested that the slips survived intact because they were stored in an oil skin pouch in his breast pocket. Woody was buried at sea on 24 April 1912. 

Much has been written about the causes of the tragic sinking of the Titanic. Soon after the tragedy people started apportioning blame to those they felt were responsible for the deaths of over 2200 people on this “unsinkable” ship. It is a moment in history that has resonated through time. These twelve postal slips provide a personal connection and insight into the real life and duties of one man – Oscar Scott Woody – during the five days that the Titanic stayed afloat.

Biography

April 2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the very first Impressionist exhibition that was organized by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his close friend Claude Monet along with Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and other artists. The exhibition was not well received by the critics but the artists who took part would become among the most significant and recognizable names of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They remain so today, and because of this it is impossible to go back to that time when their works were so outside the mainstream, to appreciate just how groundbreaking they were. During his lifetime Renoir would find fortune and fame and be considered one of the greatest living painters, revered by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who both owned his works and felt his influence.

Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, a town about 250 miles (400km) south of Paris, and which had been renowned for its porcelain production since the 1770s. A few years after his birth his family moved to Paris. Unlike many of his contemporaries who came from decidedly middle and upper-class backgrounds, Renoir was born into poverty. His father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress’s assistant, and the young Renoir was forced to leave school aged 12 to find work. He was given a job at Lévy-Frères, a Paris porcelain factory, where he would decorate their wares in the style of the French Old Masters: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, all artists whose work was associated with a joyful frivolity. Renoir lived close to the Louvre, which housed the most astonishing collection of art from antiquities to present day. Its collection would become central to Renoir’s artistic development, especially once he received permission to sit and copy the ancient Roman sculptures, and the paintings of the Renaissance. He was enamored by those whose works were saturated by intense color. Entry to the Louvre was free and he spent many hours studying its treasures. He eventually received a more formal artistic education, in a drawing studio and in a school of fine art.

Renoir came of age at a time when he felt the tension between the avant-garde and the establishment. Compared to his contemporaries who had private incomes, Renoir needed to earn a living, and often used unpaid models in the form of his friends and fellow artists. In 1874 he helped organize the inaugural Impressionist exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris (then called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers). This was a time of political, cultural, and technological flux in Europe: Renoir was conscripted for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (but did not fight) and photography was gaining preeminence and competing directly with the Fine Arts. Renoir was a proponent of the hand-made over the machine, and lamented what he saw as the lost system of historical artistic patronage. Eventually, with the help of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and particularly recognition by the American audience who “didn’t mock us at all”, Renoir would become wealthy and famous.

As a person Renoir was extraordinarily social, craving the company of friends. He also desired to work alongside other artists, which some found intensely irritating, like Monet who preferred isolation. Renoir was also secretive, tended towards placatory behavior and would modulate his opinion to the circumstances. His biographer described him as “conflict-avoiding, double-talking … shrewd and even sneaky”. For much of his artistic career, he was not just seriously ill but also physically restricted. At the age of 47, in the late 1880s, he developed rheumatoid arthritis which progressively got worse. The effects of this inflammatory illness were debilitating, and his latter years were spent in a wheelchair where he painted despite his fingers unable to grip anything properly. His gnarled-up hands were bound with strips of cloth into which paintbrushes (and his ever-present cigarettes) were inserted by an assistant. Despite this, Renoir was extraordinarily prolific, described as a “body without a soul” if not working. He painted every day, producing well over 4600 paintings and other works of art over the course of his life.

Renoir’s painting style and especially the subject matter he focused on, changed significantly throughout his life, although certain themes and “types” preoccupied him: Genre paintings (everyday people in their everyday life), portraits, landscapes, and of course, and especially, his sensual nudes. In contrast to his failing body, Renoir’s art works rejected the obvious despair of his physical reality, and his paintings exuded a sense of joy and pleasure until the very end.