Mystery Box

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A dusty box of metal pieces in the back of the rectory basement tells a tale of long ago.

You probably don’t recognize the Addressograph Multigraph (AM) company name, even though The New York Times reported that “its embossed metal address plates were once as common as business cards in millions of offices.

Once upon a time, every organization that mailed things in bulk, used Addressograph or similar specialized equipment to print envelopes and address labels. AM also produced the chunky devices used to process credit card purchases and roll out their carbon copy receipts in stores and businesses worldwide.

What’s the connection with our parish?

For many years, the ledgers show steady monthly payments to the Cleveland Ohio company for the equipment used to address parish mailings. This was an important administrative function for a busy large parish, using heavy machines housed with the equally-important weekly-collection coin counting mechanisms in the Rectory basement (remember coins!). First, an Addressograph device stamped out a permanent raised-letter metal address plate for each parish family (the same technology used to create military dog tags). Color-coded tabs added to each plate indicated membership in different parish organizations. A group of plates could then be selected, slotted into a cartridge, and fed into a machine which pushed them, one by one, against an inked ribbon, to impress the addresses onto envelopes or pages that passed through the rollers – similar in principle to an old-fashioned typewriter’s operation. Lots of parish activities meant lots of outgoing mail.

Like our parish membership, AM’s business reached its peak in the expansive, optimistic, moon-landing 1960s, when anything seemed possible. When the Post Office introduced Zip Codes in 1963, efficiency improved, and mass mailing became ever more popular. Business opportunities seemed endless. Then came the uncertainties of Watergate, President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, the energy crisis, and an economic recession. AM’s mood turned conservative, focused on maintaining existing business, and new product development stalled – though elsewhere, technology continued to evolve. Suddenly noticing that it was behind, The New York Times reported that in 1979, AM “stumbled in a desperate effort to migrate from the mechanical to the electronic age,” and went bankrupt: “a classic case of the failure of a major office-products concern to cope with new technology...” Its employees painfully moved into other businesses, learned other trades, and started over in new careers – sometimes in other countries.

Meanwhile, our parish faced its own challenges, as city demographics changed. Parish membership dropped alarmingly through the 1970s, as longtime parishioners moved out to the suburbs.  Stacks of unused obsolete address plates piled up in a forgotten corner as the parish adapted to its new slim size and budget, while at the same time trying to embrace Vatican II renewal. The Vietnamese refugee ministry offered a new focus with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Information delivery sped up for a new era:  the stately monthly calendar became a weekly handout in church, eventually to be supplemented by websites and Facebook. The once-vital U.S. Postal Service became known as “snail mail.” We eventually became the combined parish of St. Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.

What would the world have been like if things had stayed the same? Typewriters. Dictaphones. Mimeograph machines. Heard of those? Remember them? They’ve all been replaced and the companies that manufactured them either adapted to new conditions, developed new ideas, and revitalized — or became extinct – while the wheel of history rolled on. A cautionary tale for Parish life!

Coin counters in the Rectory basement circa 1962

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