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the iconic mailbox
July 21, 2014 8:23 PM   Subscribe

In 1915, dissatisfied with the many competing designs for rural mailboxes, the US Post Office Department decided to specify its own box. The result, designed by postal engineer Roy Joroleman, was the iconic tunnel mailbox. Unpatented and easily manufacturable, it would be become ubiquitous along America's roadsides and would often serve as a blank canvas for homeowners' artistic expression.

Joroleman's design is still specified as the Traditional classification in USPS-STD-7B - U.S. POSTAL SERVICE STANDARD MAILBOXES, CURBSIDE, but is increasingly under threat from more resilient plastic designs and the USPS's move to communal "cluster" mailboxes in new developments.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (53 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is fascinating. There are so many great designs in the artistic expression links above, but for some reason this one. the bellows camera, caught my fancy.
posted by 724A at 8:28 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting, thanks. It's crazy that USPS started looking to commission a standardized mailbox design in 1901 and didn't approve one until 1915.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:36 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]


I brought one of these back to Australia as a gift. The local postie loves flipping the flag up every chance he gets, even if there's no mail. Flagged as "no mail"? That's wacky, but we'll let you get away with it because the USPS Tunnel's flag is fun.
posted by barnacles at 8:39 PM on July 21 [7 favorites]


This is really interesting, thanks. It's crazy that USPS started looking to commission a standardized mailbox design in 1901 and didn't approve one until 1915.

Well, they mailed the approval in 1902...

I kid, Please keep delivering my mail! I have one of these mailboxes and have considered swapping it out for something more modernist, but the reality is that it works fine and it came with the house, so I'll probably just live with its lack of beauty. Mailboxes as folk art is an interesting genre, and not one that I've seen anywhere else.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:06 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


The local postie loves flipping the flag up every chance he gets, even if there's no mail

In the US, the flag's to tell the postie there's something to collect, not to tell you that mail has been delivered.
posted by yoink at 9:11 PM on July 21 [14 favorites]


My house, as well as many of yours, I am sure, has a mail-slot built into the side of the the brick house (mine: a 1926 bungalow). It was designed for letters. Oh, how quaint and wonderful!

Now, graduation photos - to take one recent example - labeled PHOTOS DO NOT BEND are bent and stuck into the slot. Most of our mail is junk mail and I pity the postman(woman) because I get a lot of magazines. Even N+1. Oh well. Maybe I should install an old-school mailbox instead. This post has me thinking about it...
posted by kozad at 9:12 PM on July 21


We don't have these in the UK. They're another crazy American thing we see on the Simpsons. But I've always wondered - how do you stop people stealing stuff from them? Is there a lock? Or is nicking post just a crazy Brit thing?
posted by Devonian at 9:16 PM on July 21


Or is nicking post just a crazy Brit thing?

I mostly read about meth addicts stealing letters as part of elaborate identity fraud, though I'm not sure if those are real or just titillating crime stories, honestly. I've never had anything stolen personally; it might help that the Post Office has its own police investigators who take mail theft very seriously?

Playing mailbox baseball, however, is a very US pastime.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:25 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


In the US, the flag's to tell the postie there's something to collect, not to tell you that mail has been delivered.

In my experience, outside of rural areas, Australia letter boxes are delivery only, and are often locked. In this instance, the US style mail flag is essentially meaningless, and the postie can leave it however they like.
posted by zamboni at 9:40 PM on July 21


People don't generally touch other people's mail because it's kind of an "oh that's really indecent" sort of thing to do, like messing with someone's parked car (not that people don't do that, but you get the idea).

You know, the unspoken social contract keeps most mail safe, most of the time. Mostly.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:40 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


Stealing things out of the mail in suburbia is a risky proposition since there could always be some nosy neighbor watching. In urban areas, most people have locked mailboxes or mail slots.

Stealing parcels is more common, which is why they often require signature or at least someone answering the door.
posted by JauntyFedora at 9:51 PM on July 21


People don't generally touch other people's mail because it's kind of an "oh that's really indecent" sort of thing to do, like messing with someone's parked car...

More like picking someone else's nose.
posted by Chutzler at 9:52 PM on July 21


Oh and it's the law.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:53 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


In some rural areas of the US the threat isn't so much someone going through your mail as kids driving by playing mailbox baseball. The truly iconic USPS Tunnel mailbox has a large dent in its side and hangs forlornly from its wooden post by one brave, stubborn nail.
posted by Spatch at 9:53 PM on July 21 [16 favorites]


Mailbox baseball was a thing in my suburban nothing-to-do US. My grandfather eventually built a big cement structure supporting his mailbox after the second round of bored drunk teenagers hit his. But the mail inside was never touched. No one cared about that.
posted by downtohisturtles at 10:02 PM on July 21


have considered swapping it out for something more modernist

It wasn't a good fit in this post -- and oof, they want a lot for it -- but I rather like ModBox.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:13 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Cluster mailboxes are horrible. They're ableist, classist, catnip to thieves, and downright unAmerican.

Unfortunately, the USPS seems hellbent in essentially removing the only thing that makes them relevant, that is, last-mile delivery.

However as of right now, the USPS is required to get your agreement before changing the mode of delivery. Don't let a rogue Postmaster tell you otherwise.

Also, Darrell Issa loves centralized delivery. Just sayin'.
posted by madajb at 10:14 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Isn't part of the the ethos of living in a clustered community receiving mail at a clustered location? Seems like this is a feature, not a bug. They don't have to be ugly.
posted by Camofrog at 10:18 PM on July 21


Shouldn't have gone for a wooden one.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:21 PM on July 21


We have one of those out front of our current place.

When I was a young man in Jefferson, California (the northernmost of the proposed six California mini-states), the rural highways and byways would be dotted with these, lonely sentinels at the civilized ends of long dusty driveways. Occasionally, the sentinels would be joined by others of their kind, maybe in the dozens, all haphazardly stuck to posts and fence rails. Not a driveway, then, but a dusty rural lane.

For some young men -- those in possession of a car, and beer, and a watermelon (but lacking in empathy and community spirit) -- those outposts presented an opportunity and a challenge. Could one hoist a watermelon out of the passenger's window of a speeding vehicle such that the watermelon might festoon those amazing mailboxes and posts and rails with the sweet fruit within?

In fact one could do so, after some practice (sometimes with empty bottles of beer). The secret is not to throw, but to encourage. Speed and momentum would do the rest.

In the morning was a chaos of dented and torn mail boxes, many ripped from their supports and scattered in the roadside ditches and into the weeds beyond the shoulder, red flags mingling with the red flesh and green and white rind of the sacrificial melon.

The morning after that the sentinels were replaced upon their posts and rails, much the worse for wear, but as before, patient to receive the messages from afar that even then were on their way, having already been cast with encouragement and hope by their distant senders.
posted by notyou at 10:43 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


yoink: "The local postie loves flipping the flag up every chance he gets, even if there's no mail

In the US, the flag's to tell the postie there's something to collect, not to tell you that mail has been delivered.
"

You're aware of this, and I'm aware of this, and in fact the local postie has been made aware of this but he's a devil-may-care sort and doesn't have time for such things. He sees the flag and he flips it!
posted by barnacles at 10:53 PM on July 21 [11 favorites]


Playing mailbox baseball, however, is a very US pastime.

It aint just that...
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:54 PM on July 21


I miss the ability to mail things from a mailbox, instead of them being receive-only.
posted by Bugbread at 12:18 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid in rural Iowa, you were either rural route 1 or rural route 2. Everybody in the whole state was either 1 or 2. Then 911 came in and every county had to go about naming the streets. Cedar County got the job done will little fuss and we ended up on 330 street. Muscatine county went fancy and gave them names. My road abutted Ocean Drive which I thought was pretty rich since one one on that dirt road had even seen the ocean before. I just remembered my dad celebrated this occasion by getting us a new mailbox with the street name on top. Excitement.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:29 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


I miss the ability to mail things from a mailbox, instead of them being receive-only.

Me too.

Apartment-building mailboxes tend to be things set into the wall - imagine a row of school lockers, only doll-sized. The postie unlocks the whole set with a master lock up on the top and tips the whole thing forward, to slot everyone's mail in the slots. Then shuts it up again, and we each use our own key to get our mail out of our individual mail "locker". If there's a package, it depends - either the postie puts a ticket in your box telling you there's a package and you have to go get it from the post office on your own time, or they leave it in your lobby (fortunately my building is small and I know and trust all my neighbors, so this is an okay option for me).

It is locked, which is good. But I can't mail something out by just leaving it in my mailbox; the delivery postie's aren't able to collect all the time (I've actually asked a delivery guy on the street if they could take a couple of my stamped envelopes that were due to go out and they wouldn't, for fear it get mixed up in the things they had to deliver), and sometimes the things already in your box are things from yesterday because you're out of town.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:24 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


As a kid in the 70s we had a lot of fun teeing off on all the classic metal mailboxes around our rural-Suburban neighborhood. No two alike, all deliciously vulnerable to a 30oz Louisville slugger at 30mph. Now I go back and every house has their box either encased in brick, or it's one of these. /hangs head
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 3:28 AM on July 22


A friend of mine had repeated problems with the local idiots purposely running over his mailbox. He solved it by getting an old projector stand from the local theater he worked at; the thing was cast aluminum, but he knew that wasn't going to be tough enough. He laid a concrete pad and bolted on the stand, then filled the thing with more concrete. On top, he bolted the empty casing of a cast aluminum projector lamphouse (the part that holds the projector bulb), and inserted a standard USPS mailbox in there, sticking out one end. Picture what looks like a rusty old metal stand, but it conceals a concrete pillar inside.

Next time the local idiots drove up his driveway to ram his mailbox, the cops just arrested them for trespassing & destruction of property; when they tried to complain about their severely-damaged pickup truck, the cops just laughed at them. My friend said his mailbox stand wasn't even scratched.
posted by easily confused at 5:17 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Stealing other people's mail is low-reward. You mostly get sales circulars and bills. I seldom if ever get a check, and then you'd have to pretend to be me to cash it. Packages get left by the front door, up a long drive. You could steal them but chances are someone would see you, and also we tend to order things like books and clothes...not really worth stealing.
posted by emjaybee at 5:19 AM on July 22


We don't have these in the UK. They're another crazy American thing we see on the Simpsons. But I've always wondered - how do you stop people stealing stuff from them? Is there a lock? Or is nicking post just a crazy Brit thing?

Is mail theft a big problem in the UK?
posted by Area Man at 5:24 AM on July 22


Let me add to the mailbox porn.
posted by plinth at 5:29 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


There's some real creativity when you look at BatProof Mailboxes
posted by leotrotsky at 6:15 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


These are getting rather common in Germany, not out of practical reasons but as a rather common piece of Americana everybody's seen on TV since they were born. Mostly used for newspapers, though, with a separate (locked) box for letters. We're not that trusting...
posted by pseudocode at 6:23 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


There's some real creativity when you look at BatProof Mailboxes

Heh; I was thinking you meant a very different kind of bat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


It's a sign of how ubiquitous that design is that right now is the very first second of my life where I have considered the possibility that a mailbox (rather than a mail slot) could be designed any other way.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:42 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]


But I've always wondered - how do you stop people stealing stuff from them? Is there a lock? Or is nicking post just a crazy Brit thing?

The only thing worth stealing from a mailbox are packages that are shipped via the Post Office (as opposed to a commercial carrier such as UPS or FedEx). At my current address, the mail carrier will come to the door and ring the bell. If no one is home he'll leave the package inside the screen door. But at my previous address, the carrier would leave ALL packages in the roadside box regardless of shape and size and if you could get it out of there, you certainly earned it. The ultimate prize was a large hardcover book which I seriously considered cutting the mailbox open to remove.
posted by dances with hamsters at 6:42 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


We had one of these when I was a kid in rural Illinois, and mailbox baseball was A Thing. Our mailbox never seemed to get hit, although many others on the road did.

It turned out that Mr. Sanders, a well driller who was our up-road neighbor had welded together three lengths of old drill pipe in a bundle, and then constructed a visual facsimile of a sheet-metal mailbox out of half-inch steel plate with a rolled top and everything. Welded and securely bolted.

Then he laid the trap: knowing that the kids that were doing this went for the easy targets, he made it the most attractive target he could- by painting the box a nice shiny silver, to make it reflective, and widening the turnout to his driveway making it an even more inviting target to a drunken kid.

It didn't take long before Mr. Sanders had a fine collection of broken Louisville Sluggers that he would collect, satisfyingly using them as kindling for his fireplace. "Finest dried wood there is", he'd say.

Nobody fucked with Mr. Sanders.
posted by pjern at 6:51 AM on July 22 [14 favorites]


stupidsexyFlanders wrote:

"Now I go back and every house has their box either encased in brick, or it's one of these. /hangs head"

Oh God those are an ABOMINATION. Worst design ever! ugh /rant over

(I have very strong opinions about mailboxes.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:05 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


Not strong. Reasonable. Those things are terrible.

Also, growing up green was always the color for the newspaper box, so they confuse me greatly.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:10 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


You're aware of this, and I'm aware of this, and in fact the local postie has been made aware of this but he's a devil-may-care sort and doesn't have time for such things. He sees the flag and he flips it!

Has the whole world gone crazy?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?!
posted by yoink at 7:26 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Too bad the post immediately below this one isn't about the humble paper tube.

I have one of those ugly plastic mailboxes (used to be green but now beige). It may not be the prettiest (but I don't think it's that bad) but it is functional , nearly indestructable, and cheap and easy to replace when it is hit by a rogue dump truck (as happened to mine, hence the "nearly" indestructable).
posted by TedW at 7:30 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


"You're a postie, you won't flip that flag.... there are RULES for posties..."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:53 AM on July 22


Yeah, my inspector keeps telling me the same thing.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:01 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


When I moved to my mostly affluent suburban community I was told not to leave outgoing mail in the mailbox because it often gets stolen. The raised flag gives the bad guys a heads-up that there is likely a check in the mailbox.
posted by Dragonness at 8:36 AM on July 22


If there's a package, it depends - either the postie puts a ticket in your box telling you there's a package and you have to go get it from the post office on your own time, or they leave it in your lobby (fortunately my building is small and I know and trust all my neighbors, so this is an okay option for me).

They might also have a package locker - a larger locker that has its own key. The postal worker takes the key out of the locker, puts your package in, then places the key in your mailbox. When you get your mail, you then use the key to retrieve your package, then leave the key in the locker to be used again.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:51 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


When I moved to my mostly affluent suburban community I was told not to leave outgoing mail in the mailbox because it often gets stolen. The raised flag gives the bad guys a heads-up that there is likely a check in the mailbox.

I've been told that too. I'm sure it has happened to some people sometimes, but it's never yet happened to me. OTOH we tend to drop mail with checks in it in the blue US Mail box rather than leave it in our own box.
posted by yoink at 8:59 AM on July 22


"Postie." Usin' it the rest of the way.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:00 AM on July 22


>we tend to drop mail with checks in it in the blue US Mail box rather than leave it in our own box.

Problem is, when mail is stolen it's stolen indiscriminately - they can't tell what envelope contains a check, so they grab everything inside. Someone I know had outgoing kid birthday invitations swiped from their mailbox and then found them thrown by the side of the road a little ways away.
posted by Dragonness at 9:58 AM on July 22


When I moved to my mostly affluent suburban community I was told not to leave outgoing mail in the mailbox because it often gets stolen. The raised flag gives the bad guys a heads-up that there is likely a check in the mailbox.

I've been told that too. I'm sure it has happened to some people sometimes, but it's never yet happened to me.


The ONLY time I've had mail stolen, it was from an inthewall apartment building 'mailbox'.

Confirming Yoink, the flag is to signal the postie (yes: 'postie') that there's a pickup.

He sees the flag and he flips it!

"You're a postie, you won't flip that flag.... there are RULES for posties..."

Has the whole world gone crazy?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?!


Jimi cares:
Ess tee dee seven bee is really good
It's even better when it's understood
You got me flippin' like a flag on a pole
Come on, postie, let the good times roll . . .
posted by Herodios at 10:00 AM on July 22


On a different note, Houzz recently had an interesting story about a man who set out to recreate a midcentury modern mailbox to match his midcentury modern house.
posted by Dragonness at 10:01 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


They might also have a package locker - a larger locker that has its own key. The postal worker takes the key out of the locker, puts your package in, then places the key in your mailbox. When you get your mail, you then use the key to retrieve your package, then leave the key in the locker to be used again.

Heh. The first time I got a package in one of those, I dutifully took the key from my normal box, took it to the post office across the street, and waited in line where I was told by the postal worker that the key was actually to one of the GIANT BOXES standing behind the regular boxes.

I now live in a rural area, and the tunnel boxes are very helpful in this era of preprinted package labels. As long as the box fits in the, uh, box. I can just do that and lift the flag, and I don't have to drive to the post office or have the mail lady drive down our (sometimes icy) driveway.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:03 AM on July 22


I was in grade school when they started suburban delivery where I lived (previously it was just PO boxes). My dad did the majority of the work building the 4-box stand that served us and two neighbors (the fourth lot was empty at the time). Our next door neighbor helped with the postholes and pouring the concrete. The whole family went to Menards to pick the mailbox.

The first day of mail delivery, my brother and I broke into a sprint when we got close to home in an attempt to be the first one to pick up the mail. He won.
posted by ckape at 11:30 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]


I mostly read about meth addicts stealing letters as part of elaborate identity fraud, though I'm not sure if those are real or just titillating crime stories, honestly.

I can't say if it was tweakers (but in that neighborhood, maybe) who stole a box of checks out of my suburban frontyard mailbox as part of a not-entirely elaborate identity fraud. They used those checks at a loverly number of local outlets of large chains for a nice shopping spree that I discovered after depositing my paycheck and finding a negative balance. Before that I worked at a camp on a rural route at the other end of the state and a passerby (in the middle of nowhere) discovered that both money and cookies were shipped up and left at the drop, thus lightening the mail of money and cookies.

I've got a big boring multibox now with locks and a tendency to collect hornets. Its not as nice but its safer...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:56 PM on July 22


My brother-in-law is a criminal prosecutor in a nearby suburban county. One of his favorite lectures is about not leaving mail to be picked up in your curbside mailbox. He has prosecuted many mail thieves.

The last time our mailbox was taken out, it was done by kids who had looted our neighbor's autumn display and used an extra-large pumpkin as a missile. Broken mailbox and a big mess.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 7:32 PM on July 22


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