One of the many things I enjoy about collecting stamps that I am constantly learning something new; it is one of the reasons I started the A Stamp A Day blog as it gives me daily reasons to do research. For today, I had planned to write about what we Americans call “mailboxes” (called letter boxes, letter plates, letter holes, or mail slots elsewhere). I had always assumed that the same term referred to both the receptacle for receiving (and sending) letters from one’s home or business and the public boxes where people deposit outgoing mail intended for collection by postal workers. Nope, they aren’t the same thing. The latter are called post boxes, collection boxes, or drop boxes but also mailboxes or letterboxes. This article will concern both types of receptacle and I will refer to the private versions as letter boxes while the public versions will be referred to as post boxes. Pillar boxes — found primarily in the United Kingdom, former member of the British Commonwealth and throughout Southeast Asia — are a type of post box but will be dealt with in a later article.
In 1653, the first post boxes are believed to have been installed in and around Paris. By 1829, post boxes were in use throughout France. A post box originally installed in the wall of the post office in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, is dated 1809 and believed to be the oldest example in Britain. It is now on display at the Wakefield Museum. The first public post boxes in Poland were installed in Warsaw in 1842. The first to appear in Russia were made of wood and iron in 1848 in St. Petersburg. Because these boxes were lightweight and easy to steal, they disappeared frequently; later boxes were made of cast iron and could weigh up to 45 kilograms.
Private letterboxes or mail slots did not become popular in most of Europe until the mid- to late 19th century, although they were used in Paris from the late 18th century. In 1849, Great Britain’s Post Office first encouraged people to install letterboxes to facilitate the delivery of mail. Before then, letterboxes of a similar design had been installed in the doors and walls of post offices for people to drop off outgoing mail.
In the British Isles, the first red pillar post boxes were erected in Guernsey in 1852. Roadside wall boxes first appeared in 1857 as a cheaper alternative to pillar boxes, especially in rural districts. In 1853, the first pillar box in the United Kingdom was installed at Botchergate, Carlisle. Green was adopted as the standard color for the early Victorian post boxes. Between 1866 and 1879, the hexagonal Penfold post box became the standard design for pillar boxes and it was during this period that red was first adopted as the standard color. The first boxes to be painted red were in London in July 1874, although it would be nearly 10 years before all the boxes had been repainted. In 2012, to celebrate Olympic gold medals for Team GB, selected boxes are painted gold. One was vandalized briefly with graffiti and another was painted in the ‘wrong’ town.
The first post boxes in Asia were made of wood in Hong Kong in the late 19th century. In the 1890s, the metal pillar box appeared in Hong Kong and remained in use until the late 1990s. From the 1890s to 1997, the boxes were painted red and after 1997 were painted green.
The United States Post Office Department (USPOD) began installing public mail collection boxes in the 1850s outside post offices and on street corners in large Eastern cities. U.S. collection boxes were initially designed to be hung or supported, and were mounted on support pillars, lamp-posts, telegraph poles, or even the sides of buildings. By the 1880s, these boxes were made of heavy cast iron to deter theft or vandalism. As mail volume grew, the Post Office Department gradually replaced pillar mailboxes with larger free-standing models, though many of the pillar boxes continued in service as late as the 1960s.
The four-footed, free-standing U.S. Mail collection box was first suggested in 1894, following the successful use of such designs in Canada, and quickly became a fixture on U.S. city street corners. Unlike Canadian mailboxes, which were painted red, U.S. mail collection boxes were originally painted in red or green. Beginning in 1909, all mail collection boxes were painted a dark green to avoid confusion with emergency and fire equipment. Dark green gave way to olive drab green after World War I, when the U.S. Army donated a large supply of olive drab green paint to the USPOD. Olive drab green subsequently became the standard color for all U.S. mail collection boxes until 1955. On July 4, 1955, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield announced that the Department would begin painting all mail collection boxes in red and blue with white lettering to make them easily identifiable.
In 1971, the United States Postal Service changed mail collection boxes to the current USPS Dark Blue with contrasting lettering. The coming of the automobile also influenced U.S. mailbox design, and in the late 1930s, an extension chute or “snorkel” to drive-up curbside collection boxes was adopted.
In 1863, with the creation of Free City Delivery, the United States Post Office Department (USPOD) began delivering mail to home addresses. Until 1916, mail carriers knocked on the door and waited patiently for someone to answer. Efficiency experts estimated that each mailman lost over 1.5 hours each day just waiting for patrons to come to the door. To correct this problem, the Post Office Department ordered that every household must have a mail box or letter slot in order to receive mail. This requirement was phased in, starting with new delivery locations, around 1912. Slowly, homeowners and businesses began to install mail slots or attached mailboxes to receive mail when they were either not at home or unable to answer the door. The requirement was made mandatory in 1923.
As early as the 1880s, the USPOD had begun to encourage homeowners to attach wall-mounted mailboxes to the outside of their houses in lieu of mail slots. Mounted at the height of a standing man, attached mailboxes did not require the mail carrier to lean over to deposit the mail. They also allowed the homeowner to keep outgoing mail dry while awaiting pickup by the mail carrier.
To reduce the time required for the mail carrier to complete delivery when the front door of a home was located some distance from the street, it was proposed that individual mail boxes for residential or business customers be mounted curbside on fence-posts, lamp-posts, or other supports. While this idea was rejected for city mail delivery, it was adopted for rural areas. Curbside mailboxes located on a rural route or road and sited at the intersection of the road with each recipient’s carriageway or private drive allowed limited numbers of mail carriers to deliver mail to many widely scattered farms and ranches in a single day using horse-drawn wagons or later on, motor vehicles.
Before the introduction of rural free delivery (RFD) by the United States in 1896, and in Canada in 1908, many rural residents had no access to the mail unless they collected it at a post office located many miles from their homes or hired a private express company to deliver it. For this reason, mailboxes did not become popular in rural North America until curbside RFD mail delivery by the post office was an established service. Even then, farmers and rural homeowners at first resisted the purchase of dedicated mailboxes, preferring to leave empty bushel baskets, tin boxes, or wooden crates at the roadside for the postman to deposit their mail. Not until 1923 did the USPOD finally mandate that every household install a mailbox or mail slot in order to receive home delivery of mail.
Originally designed only for incoming mail delivery, curbside mailboxes were soon fitted with a semaphore or signal flag mounted on an attached arm to signal the postman to pickup outgoing mail. Originally, this flag was raised not only by the resident of the property to signal the postman of outgoing mail, but also by the postman to inform the recipient that incoming mail had been delivered — a convenience to all during periods of freezing or inclement weather.
Since 1923, in order to promote uniformity, as well as the convenient and rapid delivery of the mail, the U.S. Post Office Department (later the USPS) has continued to retain authority to approve the size and other characteristics of all mail receptacles, whether mailboxes or mail slots, for use in delivery of the mails. The USPS continues to issue specifications for curbside mailbox construction for use by manufacturers. Approved mailboxes from the latter are always stamped “U.S. Mail” and “Approved by the Postmaster General”. These standards have resulted in limitations on product diversity and design, though new materials, shapes, and features have appeared in recent years.
After World War II, postwar suburban home construction expanded dramatically in the United States, along with mail volume. By the 1960s, many new suburban homes were considerably larger and located on larger lots, yet most still used mail slots or attached wall-mounted mailboxes. This development caused a substantial increase in distances walked by the mail carrier, slowing mail delivery while increasing labor costs. In order to reduce delivery times and increase efficiency, the USPOD began requiring all new suburban developments to install curbside mailboxes in place of door-to-door delivery, allowing mail carriers to remain in the vehicle while delivering the mail. In 1978, the USPS declared that every new development must have either curbside delivery or centralized mail delivery.
Today, letterboxes are found in several types:
- A slot in a wall or door through which mail is delivered (through-door delivery)
- A box attached directly to the building (direct-to-door delivery)
- A box mounted at or near the street (curbside delivery)
- A centralized mail delivery station consisting of individual mailboxes for an entire building
- A centralized mail delivery station consisting of individual mailboxes for multiple recipients at multiple addresses in a particular neighborhood or community
A “mail slot” in American and Canadian usage, is a slot, usually horizontal but sometimes vertical, about 12 inches by 2 inches (30 cm by 5 cm), cut through the middle or lower half of a front door. This style is almost universal in British homes and offices, but in the United States is limited primarily to older neighborhoods in a few eastern cities. Most are covered by a flap or seal on the outside for weatherproofing. The flap may be closed by gravity, or sprung to prevent it opening and closing noisily in the wind. Some letterboxes also have a second flap on the inside to provide further protection from the elements. There may also be a small cage or box mounted on the inside of the door to receive the delivered mail. Mail slots are limited to receiving incoming mail, as most have no provision for securing and protecting outgoing mail for pickup by the mail carrier. Sending mail from private addresses is not possible in the United Kingdom since the Royal Mail does not provide such a service.
Wall-mounted or attached mailboxes may also be used in place of mail slots, usually located close to the front door of the residence. They are known as “full-service” mailboxes when they have provisions for securing outgoing as well as incoming mail. Attached wall-mounted mailboxes are still used in older urban and suburban neighborhoods in North America. They are especially common in urban and suburban areas of Canada, where the curbside mailbox is rarely seen except in rural areas. Attached mailboxes are less common in newer urban and suburban developments and in rural areas of the United States, where curbside delivery or delivery to a community mail station (cluster mailbox, known as a bank of post boxes in the UK) is generally used.
Rural and some suburban areas of North America may utilize curbside mailboxes, also known as rural mailboxes. These receptacles generally consist of a large metal box mounted on a support designed primarily to receive large quantities of incoming mail, often with an attached flag to signal the presence of outgoing mail to the mail carrier. In the U.S. and Canada, rural curbside mailboxes may be found grouped together at property boundaries or road/driveway intersections, depending upon conditions. Although the United States Postal Service (USPS) has general regulations stating the distance a letter box may be from the road surface, these requirements may be changed by the local postmaster according to local environment and road conditions.
At one time, nearly 843,000 rural Canadian residents used rural (curbside) mailboxes for private mail delivery, though Canada Post has since required the installation of community mailbox stations for many rural residents.
In the United States, wall-mounted or curbside mailboxes that are only designed for receiving incoming mail are known as “limited-service” mailboxes, while mailboxes equipped with a mechanism for notifying the postman to collect outgoing mail from the mailbox are known as “full service” mailboxes.
A number of designs of letterboxes and mailboxes have been patented, particularly in the United States. One design was the visible mailbox (because it was made of transparent glass) with a flip-up aluminum lid produced during the first part of the 20th century by George F. Collins of the Barlet-Collins Glass Company in Sapulpa, Oklahoma.
External or curbside letter boxes are not temperature-controlled, and this can sometimes be a concern for temperature-sensitive products such as pharmaceuticals, live plants or other organisms, or chocolate candies. Conditions can include high or low temperatures outside of the recommended storage conditions for certain products. For example, the USFDA found that the temperature in a steel mailbox painted black could reach 136 °F (58 °C) in full sun while the ambient air temperature was 101 °F (38 °C).
There is a recommendation to have a lock on the letter box, if it is not built into a lockable door. Unlocked letter boxes are often used for identity theft, including the ordering of something valuable which is then stolen from the unlocked box. By policy, the USPS will not deliver mail to an unlocked or unsecured box which is located at a centralized mailbox installation.
With centralized mail delivery, a central community mail station consisting of multiple mailboxes is located within or near a building or in a particular neighborhood. Known variously as group mailboxes, cluster mailboxes, or community mail stations, these mailboxes are often used in newer construction in place of door-to-door or curbside mailbox delivery.
Large apartment buildings usually have a cluster of mailboxes for all units, located in the entry lobby or in a nearby dedicated mailroom. There often is a special lock box (also called a “key keeper” or “Knox box”) located at the outside entrance, which either gives access to a front door key or directly activates the front door electric strike, to allow the mail delivery person to enter the building. A similar “Arrow lock” is usually located on the centralized mailbox, to allow the entire unit to be opened for efficient filling of individual mailboxes.
In the United States, a property with a single mailing address but with multiple mail recipients may utilize a community mail station designated CBU, or Cluster Box Unit. CBUs are typically stand-alone units that have locked individual compartments for each tenant in an apartment building, a trailer or mobile home park, or an office center.
By policy, the USPS is reluctant to establish direct to door delivery to new addresses, and now requires special approvals to initiate this service. Instead, the USPS has insisted upon centralized mail delivery in virtually all newly constructed residential housing developments, condominiums, and gated communities by requiring or incentivizing the builder or developer to install larger NDCBU (Neighborhood Delivery Collection Box Unit) stations. CBUs and NDCBUs are both commonly known as cluster mailboxes. The NDCBU is a centralized community mail station with compartments for the centralized delivery of mail to multiple recipients at multiple addresses within a single neighborhood development or community.
Since 2004, many rural Canadian residents have been required to use community mail stations (known as a Community Mail Box, or CMB) instead of individual curbside mailboxes in an attempt to reduce health and safety complaints by Canada Post rural mail carriers. This change has been extended to some suburban areas of the country as well.
The largest mailbox in the world is located in Casey, Illinois, and measures at 5,743 cubic feet (162.63 cubic meters). It was created by Jim Bolin and was verified by the Guinness Book of World Records on October 20, 2015.
Some postal operators have different types of post boxes for different types of mail, such as, regular post, air mail and express mail, for local addresses (defined by a range of postal codes) and out-of-town addresses, or for post bearing postage stamps and post bearing a postage meter indicator.
In countries such as Australia, Portugal, and Russia, the color of the post box indicates which type of mail a box is to be used for, such as 1st and 2nd class post. However, in Germany and parts of Sweden, because of postal deregulation, the different colors are for the different postal services. Other nations use a particular color to indicate common political or historical ties. Bright colors are often used to increase visibility and prevent accidents and injuries.
Post boxes are emptied (“cleared”) at times usually listed on a plate fixed to the box. In urban areas, this might be once or twice a day. Busy boxes might be cleared more frequently to avoid overflowing, and also to spread the work for the sorters. Extra clearances are made in the period leading up to Christmas, to prevent boxes becoming clogged with mail.
Since 2005, most Royal Mail post boxes have had the time of only the last collection of the day shown on the box, with no indication of whether the box is cleared at other times earlier in the day. Royal Mail say they needed to increase the type size of the wording on the plate to help those with poor sight, and so there was not enough room to list all collection times throughout the day. Some post boxes may indicate the next collection time by a metal ‘tab’ or dial that can be changed while the box is open. The tab displays a day or number, each number corresponding to a different time shown on the plate.
In some regions of the world, particularly in Africa, there is no ‘door to door’ delivery of mail such as in Kenya. Consequently, renting a post office box (P.O. box) has traditionally been the only way to receive mail. This is a uniquely addressable lockable box located on the premises of a post office station. Generally, post office boxes are rented from the post office either by individuals or by businesses on a basis ranging from monthly to annual, and the cost of rent varies depending on the box size. Central business district (CBD) P.O. boxes are usually more expensive than rural P.O. boxes.
In the United Kingdom, Royal Mail P.O. boxes are often little more than pigeon-holes in the secure section of a sorting office and are accessible only by staff. In such cases, the renter of the P.O. box will be issued with a card showing the box number and delivery office name and must produce this to the desk staff when collecting mail. For an additional fee, the Royal Mail will deliver received items to the renter’s geographical address.
Some private companies such as the United Parcel Service (UPS) and commercial mail receiving agencies also offer similar services of renting a mailbox in a public location. The difference with an official P.O. box is that mail sent there is addressed to a street address (along with the box number), instead of just addressed to “P.O. Box xxx”.
On February 5, 1985, the German Democratic Republic released a set of four stamps picturing historic letter boxes (Scott #2456-2459). A block of four of the stamps, featuring one of each, is listed by the Scott catalogue as #2459a. These were printed using offset lithography and perforated 14. The 10-pfennig stamp (Scott #2456) portrays a private letter box used in Germany until 1850; there were 27,500,000 copies of this denomination printed. There were 11,500,000 stamps issued of the 20-pfennig value (Scott #2457) picturing a mailbox from about 1860. The 35-pfennig stamp (Scott #2458) shows a German letter box from circa 1900 of which there were 8,500,000 copies printed. Scott #2459 received a printing of 5,600,000 stamps, denominated at 50 pfennigs and bearing a letter box from about 1920.