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"This line of reasoning merely received a laugh from the clerk."
January 8, 2014 10:10 PM   Subscribe

In 2000, Improbable Research sent a variety of regulation-violating items through the mail to see what would make it.
posted by Pope Guilty (52 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love this article. To this day my wife calls anything put through a system purely to see if that system will choke a "coconut."
posted by 1adam12 at 11:02 PM on January 8 [6 favorites]


Love the bottle of water! What on earth was the postal worker thinking?
posted by dg at 11:12 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


Very interesting. I think the Postal Service does a darn good job overall.

Same with UPS and Fed Ex.
posted by aryma at 11:25 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


Britain's Royal Mail produces this sheet of graphics illustrating stuff you can't (or at least shouldn't) post. Extra credit will be awarded to those who can decipher every single symbol.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:47 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Upon pickup at station, our mailing specialist received a plastic bag containing broken and pulverized remnants of brick. Inside was a small piece of paper with a number code on it. Our research indicates that this was some type of US Drug Enforcement Agency release slip.
Serious question: Shouldn't something like this take a warrant? Don't you guys have some constitutional protection over your effects?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:56 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Lol no
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:19 AM on January 9 [15 favorites]


I mailed my metafilter cookies in clear plastic deli containers and they all made it. Strangely, the ones I mailed to friends in Seattle and New York arrived earlier than the ones I mailed locally in Portland.
posted by funkiwan at 12:32 AM on January 9


Shouldn't something like this take a warrant?

It's likely that a warrant was obtained, my friend who is a criminal defense attorney says it is rare for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to fail to comply with warrant requirements. If you're curious, this USPS report from the arrest of Chris Perez includes a description of the steps and procedures postal inspectors take when they suspect a package might contain a controlled substance.
posted by RichardP at 2:20 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Today you sent me Saturday. The postman had me sign for it, and departed in good spirits. He must not work weekends. I was headed out to the office, of course, expecting it to be Thursday—which generally follows a Wednesday—but when I realized it was Saturday I turned around, changed clothes, and called up Ruth Jacoby to see if she wanted to do some shopping and have lunch.
-Fourteen Experiments In Postal Delivery (text, audio)
posted by NoraReed at 2:35 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Helluva set up for an innocuous pun.
posted by Jode at 2:57 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


As an American living abroad, please, be thankful. The US Post has as a #1 priority, to deliver mail. Other post services are very happy to find any reason to refuse, or no reason at all. USPS is #1!
posted by Goofyy at 3:32 AM on January 9 [9 favorites]


I had a coworker who kept venomous snakes. I think he received most of them via USPS overnight.
posted by double block and bleed at 3:38 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


This is a great article, but of course it was written in 2000, which we in the United States know as "days of yore." I have a terrible suspicion that if this were to be tried today, it would result in, at best, more refusals of delivery and, at worst, visits from government officials with badges, sunglasses and no senses of humor.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:53 AM on January 9 [10 favorites]


USPS will ship live bees as long as the package is marked “LIVE BEES.”
posted by RichardP at 3:53 AM on January 9 [35 favorites]


I have doubts that a lot of this stuff would still get shipped post 9/11
posted by empath at 4:02 AM on January 9


Love the bottle of water! What on earth was the postal worker thinking?

- "What a hot day."

- "I wonder if this has LSD in it?"

- "I know the asshole at this address, and I want them to die of fluoride poisoning from their tap water."

- "My hair looks bad, but I don't have a comb or brush. This stupid idiot's spring water will do."

- "Oh great, now I can eat this dehydrated camping food someone else tried to mail!"
posted by oceanjesse at 4:34 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Reminds me of Wired's "Return to Sender" contest. (I wish I could find a larger compendium of "RTS" objects from over the years--some of them were really clever!)
posted by drlith at 4:41 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


My favorite: Helium balloon. The balloon was attached to a weight. The address was written on the balloon with magic marker; no postage was affixed. Our operative argued strongly that he should be charged a negative postage and refunded the postal fees, because the transport airplane would actually be lighter as a result of our postal item. This line of reasoning merely received a laugh from the clerk. The balloon was refused; reasons given: transportation of helium, not wrapped.

posted by Obscure Reference at 4:55 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Oh Comely magazine ran a similar project in the UK last year to test the Royal Mail. The excellent results can be read about here [PDF]. My personal favourite:

Cheese. A block of delicious, creamy brie was sent out in the mail. When it arrived at its destination, it was sealed in an all-new plastic bag, with the address written again on the outside. It smelt truly awful. Cheese oil was leaking out through the paper. The Royal Mail
wanted to charge the recipient extra, as the cheese had deformed during transit so that it no longer counted as a large letter. This seemed to be missing the point a little.

posted by grahamspankee at 5:01 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Apart from the balloon which was obviously brought before a clerk for laughs, how many of these items were just given sufficient postage, address, and then dropped in a box?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:08 AM on January 9


Britain's Royal Mail produces this sheet of graphics illustrating stuff you can't (or at least shouldn't) post. Extra credit will be awarded to those who can decipher every single symbol.

Oh neat! I can send Christmas crackers to my family!

Unfortunately, I can't send nail polish, perfume, dry ice, or regular ice.

And if I die, my ashes can't be sent back to L.A. via Royal Mail.
posted by Katemonkey at 5:26 AM on January 9


This is excellent, and not possible now.
posted by OmieWise at 5:26 AM on January 9


I have a terrible suspicion that if this were to be tried today, it would result in, at best, more refusals of delivery and, at worst, visits from government officials with badges, sunglasses and no senses of humor.

It depends, I think. I was in college in the years just post-9/11 and had a friend who would mail people cans of tuna; just slap some stamps on it, write the address on the top, and drop it in the mail. No one ever said boo about it as far as I know.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:27 AM on January 9


USPS will ship live bees as long as the package is marked “LIVE BEES.”

I'm more fascinated by the fact that under certain circumstances live scorpions can be mailed.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:29 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Once, way back when I was a somewhat less cautious young man, I mailed a single hit of blue microdot to my best friend. I simply put the teeny, tiny, pill in an envelope, sealed it, and sent it on its way.

The envelope arrived. But the pill was not in it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:30 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


The balloon was refused; reasons given: transportation of helium, not wrapped.

But if you think about it, the helium was wrapped - it was encased within the balloon.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:59 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


In the late 1990s, I once mailed a CD-R to a friend that contained poor quality broadcast captures of Red Dwarf in VIVO format that were personally created with an ATI All in Wonder video capture card and a free trial of encoding software for which I just happened to guess the correct license key to access the full version....

I thought for sure the Post Office would find out and come after me, and I trembled so much when I handed the mailer over to be weighed that the clerk asked if I was feeling OK.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:06 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Every time I am totally fed up with the USPS in my neighborhood I remember that you can send bees and I feel a little better.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:21 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I would love to see this repeated today. As much as I agree that with heightened fears most of the same things wouldn't go through, it's still people with a sense of humor (who even answer letters to Santa), and I'd bet it would still be a high success rate, even if not quite so high.
posted by Mchelly at 6:48 AM on January 9


As the author points out, in many countries the successful delivery rate of ANY kind of mail, no matter how it's boxed and shipped, is essentially zero percent. I have relatives in Mexico who have never been able to get packages at all, in the 20+ years they've lived there.
posted by Fnarf at 6:52 AM on January 9


I was a mailman for a year after high school. The strangest item I delivered was half a salmon. Transparently vacuum packed and with an address label on the side.

Okay, it was winter and fridge temps outside, but it was still sitting in our room temperature office for some of hours before I left for my route.
posted by brokkr at 6:57 AM on January 9


I would love to see this repeated today. As much as I agree that with heightened fears most of the same things wouldn't go through, it's still people with a sense of humor (who even answer letters to Santa), and I'd bet it would still be a high success rate, even if not quite so high.

Very possibly. Though, I would wager that a lower success rate would likely be a result of increased automation and computerization (and, thus, standardization and related inflexibility), rather than any lowering of postal workers' sense of humor.

In my experience, the workers see getting stuff to their intended recipients, no matter what, as a point of pride.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I had a coworker who kept venomous snakes. I think he received most of them via USPS overnight.

Back in the seventies I had a friend who tried to mail another friend that had recently moved a snake he had caught (non-venomous). It was in a shoebox or something, apparently not too secure because the snake got loose in the mail carrier's bag in Shreveport, LA. This resulted in an FBI (or other federal agency) visit to the friend in Augusta, GA, along with a stern warning not to do it again.
posted by TedW at 7:10 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


© Copyright 2000 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) -

I wonder whether the post office has retained its "collective sense of humor/ rudiments of organic bureaucratic intelligence" post 9/11 etc.
posted by lalochezia at 7:10 AM on January 9


Deer tibia. Our mailing specialist received many strange looks from both postal clerks and members of the public in line when he picked it up at the station, 9 days. The clerk put on rubber gloves before handling the bone, inquired if our researcher were a "cultist," and commented that mail must be wrapped.

I think this is the only use of the word "cultist" that I've seen outside of Lovecraft.
posted by exogenous at 7:26 AM on January 9


I mailed a potato, a playground ball, and several dozen flip flops (all individually stamped and addressed) around 2010, and they were all delivered as expected.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:32 AM on January 9


Reminds me a bit of the Envelope of the Month Games Magazine used to run. People would send the address in Morse Code, in Braille, as answers to a crossword, and it still got through.

Obviously, once it got to the delivering Games post office it was easy, but the origin post office guys must have had some fun.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:33 AM on January 9


Oh man. Memories.

I've had great luck with sneakers. The problem the authors faced can be largely alleviated if you take the laces off. Laces can gum up various machines, but without them, it's fine.

Also: rubber bugs/snakes. Scared the piss out of my brother that one time.

Basically, you can send anything through the mail, unwrapped, as long as it isn't any of the following: too heavy, too fragile, containing liquid, too dangerous. If it's innocuous, has sufficient postage, and bears a legible address, USPS will mostly deliver it. The postal workers also tend to be pretty good-natured about it, especially if it's an obviously innocuous item and has a clear mailing label. Most of this was post-9/11 too.

Oh, and then there was the time that I realized you could order certain kinds of USPS shipping supplies for free. As in zero cost, zero shipping. I sent about a thousand cardboard Priority Mail boxes to a few friends of mine, using their own information on the order, so it appeared that they'd placed it themselves. Confused the hell out of the recipients. I think the Post Office has since fixed that little loophole.
posted by valkyryn at 7:36 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


My mom was an elementary school teacher in a rural district at the beginning of her teaching career. First grade. She'd always close the week, Friday afternoon, with show and tell. Well, the week before winter break the snow was picking up and the students were dismissed early, so they didn't get to show and tell. No big deal, they'll do it after the break. CUT TO: mom returns to the school to the strong scent of rotting flesh. No one has any idea where it's coming from, all the teachers are confused, the smell is too strong to detect where it's coming from. Despite the fact that it's upstate New York in the dead of winter, all the windows are open. It's that bad. Her class sits down, and the smell all of a sudden gets overwhelming. One of her students opened up his desk and pulled out the full size deer leg he'd brought in two weeks earlier for show and tell.

I'm kind of shocked that one went through the mail.
posted by troika at 7:57 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Britain's Royal Mail produces this sheet of graphics illustrating stuff you can't (or at least shouldn't) post. Extra credit will be awarded to those who can decipher every single symbol.

Let's see, it looks like you can't send:

Lipstick (either purse-sized or extra-large), white-out, aftershave, first-aid kits, hand washing soap, pirate maps with three or more treasure locations marked, Jules Verne-style moon rockets, anything that is on fire, lab rats that have been nearly cut in half in some kind of horrible lab accident, anything that smells, liquefied human skeletons, a genie in a bottle, a nuclear power plant, Good & Plenty candy (either color), single-slotted screws (Phillips is OK, though), Daleks, or snowflakes.

Did I get that right?
posted by flug at 7:59 AM on January 9 [7 favorites]


I think the Post Office has since fixed that little loophole.

Yeah, they did. Not before I made myself an awesome 9-foot-tall robot out of Priority Mail boxes to stand guard, unblinking, over my dining room, though.
posted by penduluum at 8:09 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]


From a Canada post list of allowed items:
Dead animals or their parts, including, for example, the whole carcass of a beaver or a mallard duck, the antlers of a deer, hides, pelts, nests or eggs, may be acceptable for mailing, provided all applicable requirements are met.
I can't express how much I love that the go to first example of an animal carcass was a beaver.
posted by Mitheral at 8:22 AM on January 9


Thanks to this article, I can now readjust my thinking of the fine folks of the South Florida USPS as simply finding all packages and letters sent with words written on them as "suspicious" or "dangerous."

It'll still be a roll of the dice as to when mail actually shows up, but at least I know that they're just concerned for my safety, and not, just apathetic and/or incompetent.
posted by Debaser626 at 8:37 AM on January 9


You can also mail live baby chicks. Imagine the looks one gets when picking up a mildly stinky box of 25 peeping chicks in the post office!

PEEP!
posted by Sophie1 at 8:57 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


You can mail day-old pheasants, but only during April through August.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:24 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


I assume the bricks didn't make it because the USPS doesn't want someone mailing a bank building, again.
posted by ckape at 9:45 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


You can mail live adult swans via USPS. Here's a shipping box you can buy should you need one.

My friend who's a postmaster and has had two rural postings says it's not a very good idea, though. Baby poultry do fine but adult birds often die in transit. She said they don't mind the bees but that sometimes your bees will get delivered special if your usual route guy is afraid of bees.

From talking to her and some other friends who've worked postal jobs, they don't mind the odd packages at all and often find them interesting or funny, as long as they don't screw up the machines or anything. They mind Amazon simultaneous release day of Harry Potter books. And they REALLY mind people with loose dogs. Mailmen still get bitten a LOT.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:56 AM on January 9


See, this right here is a great example of why Fedex and UPS are not adequate substitutes for USPS.
posted by lunasol at 10:18 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


You can also mail live baby chicks.

Forever for which I am grateful. I ordered my Jersey Giants through the mail, and all but one arrived in good shape. Although I wish the postal worker wouldn't have peered through the air holes and then shook the box to determine if any had died. Please be gently with the chicks, lady.

When I was a kid in Denver, every Christmas my Slovakian grandparents would send old fashioned homemade kielbasa through the mail. OMG it was heavenly stuff, and you'll never find anything that tastes that good (or smells that strong) again. Even through several layers of foil, plastic, paper and a couple boxes, it was extremely pungent. Postal workers not familiar with the wonderfulness that is kielbasa use to hand it over with apologies that it had spoiled. Hilarious. What wasn't all that funny was that all our toys and clothes that grandma sent with the package smelled like kielbasa for weeks.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:01 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the day that I had to take numerous school textbooks back to the post office (I had ordered from resellers, and they sent the wrong state edition). All I had on hand for sealing the packages was duct tape. Co-workers helped haul the boxes, which were very heavy.

It was easily the most embarrassing day I have had at work. The post office clerk looked down her nose and said "No, we do not take packages wrapped with duct tape."

I had to buy some USPS clear shipping tape and we tore off the duct tape right there and applied the clear tape.

I learned later that the USPS regards packages wrapped with duct tape as possibly containing drugs. Since each box weighed at least 30 pounds, I would now be wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice (or serving time in a Federal prison) had I been shipping drugs.
posted by bad grammar at 4:31 PM on January 9


Ok, so I turn old boxes inside out and mail them reconstructed with duct tape, does this make me some sort of Al Pacino/Nikola Tesla hybrid?
posted by oceanjesse at 6:23 PM on January 9


bad grammar: "I learned later that the USPS regards packages wrapped with duct tape as possibly containing drugs."

That doesn't make any sense. If the post office won't accept them then how can it indicate anything. More likely the post office doesn't accept it because duct tape is a shitty packaging tape because it tears so easy. And the adhesive is really sticky therefor when a piece tears off it gums up whatever machine it is in at the time.
posted by Mitheral at 9:37 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


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