Before email, cable news, telephones, or even the telegraph, the postal service was the social network for millions of people, distributing everything from news to love letters. Postal antiques cover the objects, tools, and hardware used for the processing and delivery of this mail by national or independent postal systems, from locks and scales to messenger bags and mailboxes.
In the United States, an affordable national mail system evolved over hundreds of years, pushing improvements in aviation and rail technology, helping citizens build businesses, and creating public spaces where community members could connect. The first paid postal service in the United States, though, was designed to connect colonists with their contacts in Europe. People deposited their outgoing mail in bags hung at well-known coffee houses; the fee was around one penny per letter. A ship’s captain would then collect the bags bound for his destination and deliver the letters to another tavern abroad.
During the colonial era, letters were passed voluntarily from person to person, but as the sizes of towns and distances between people grew, more dependable methods emerged. By 1...
Besides these contracted drivers, independent businesses filled gaps in coverage the government did not offer. Pomeroy & Company ran bi-weekly parcel deliveries between Buffalo and New York, while William Harnden’s mail company focused on the New York-to-Boston route. Many staples of the modern postal service were pioneered by these private carriers and later adopted by the USPS, including home delivery, prepaid adhesive stamps, and parcel post.
Some of the most interesting artifacts of early mail services are the hand-stamps used to create designations on letters. These include postmarks to indicate where and when an item entered the mail system, cancellations to prevent a stamp from being reused, and auxiliary marks to provide special instructions or information about the parcel.
Hand-carved “fancy cancel” stamp designs were common, and featured symbols like skulls-and-crossbones or devil’s heads to indicate a used stamp. Fancy cancels were typically unique to an individual post office, and stamped individually onto letters. In 1904, the Post Office Department forced postmasters to adopt standardized postmarks and ended the use of these stamps. Their distinctive designs make them highly collectible today.
After the government issued paper stamps in 1856, the USPS installed collection boxes on busy city blocks or adjacent to post offices so people could drop letters at their convenience. USPS carriers travelled some routes as often as four times a day. Smaller collection boxes, like the first one patented by iron manufacturer Albert Potts in 1858, were initially mounted on lampposts, and later replaced with larger stationary containers.
The standard four-footed mailboxes we know today were first used in 1894. Colors indicated frequency of collection, like the higher-priority red mailboxes in Boston. The Postmaster General eventually standardized the colors of all street drop boxes, beginning with green in 1909 and changing to bright red, olive green, red-and-blue, and finally a deep solid blue in the 1970s.
The USPS regularly tested and incorporated new features, like the curbside “snorkel” mailboxes whose drop slot was extended with a chute allowing motorists to deposit mail without leaving their cars. Other ideas were vetoed, like a foot-pedal mailbox tested in Washington D.C. which opened with a foot-release lever and was impossible to use when there was snow on the ground.
The residential mailbox developed after the initiation of free city delivery in 1863. Free city delivery was added to new locations as citizens requested it, as long as their communities met population requirements, provided sidewalks and crosswalks, ensured that streets were named and lit, and assigned numbers to individual houses.
Rural Free Delivery, or R.F.D., began in 1896 to bring news and correspondence to people living in rural areas. Many country-dwellers installed locked roadside mailboxes to protect their deliveries. Independent companies like Smith & Egge and Eagle Lock Co. manufactured locks marked R.F.D. to capitalize on the trend.
Rural carriers often acted as mobile post offices, hauling a cash box with change, stamps, and official forms for outgoing mail in addition to their deliveries. However, R.F.D. also encouraged the construction of many new post offices in smaller communities, causing a flood of postal-hardware production.
The locking-front mailbox developed even earlier, growing out of post office sorting methods in which mail was grouped by destination into wooden pigeon-hole slots accessible only by the postmaster. Around 1810, stationary glass fronts were added to these sorting boxes, allowing customers to see whether they had mail before speaking with an employee. The first locked wooden mailbox door designed for customers was created in 1857.
Originally, local postmasters purchased lockboxes from companies like Yale or Corbin Lock Co., recouping their investments from rental fees charged to customers. Early doors were fitted with traditional keyed locks, but eventually they came in a variety of combination lock styles, with one or two dials, push buttons, or even electric faces. Most were cast from brass or bronze and frequently decorated with a flying eagle insignia or the initials “U.S.” on the front.
Concurrently, by the 1860s, several railroads ran special cars so mail could be sorted during travel. Since many trains didn’t stop at every station, the “mail on the fly” system was developed to pick up and deliver parcels while trains were in motion. Stations installed hook-and-crane mechanisms to allow outgoing mail bags to be snagged by an onboard clerk as the train passed; incoming mail was simply tossed into the station from the moving train. Mail sent by locomotive peaked around 1930, when more than 10,000 trains transported correspondence, but the decline of rail travel made this method obsolete by the 1970s.
The first air-mail route in the U.S. was inaugurated in 1918 between New York City and Washington, D.C., with a stop in Philadelphia for refueling. Within six months, the route was extended to include Chicago, and by 1920, air mail had reached San Francisco. In fact, the USPS was the first major client for commercial aviation, and it helped build the fledgling industry by purchasing aircraft, hiring pilots, and establishing new routes.
Today, bizarre shipping containers from the dangerous days of air and rail transport are prized by people who collect postal antiques. Some protected eggs, others made it safe to transport live bees, and a few were even meant to be hurled out of airplanes, such as the bright-orange rubber mail canisters used by private contractor All American Airways in the 1930s to drop mail in rural areas without airports.
Still, the most frequently collected pieces are the actual mailboxes, cancel stamps, and scales from post offices, as well as the sacks used to transport the mail. Common bulk mail sacks were made of plain canvas with a string closure and a U.S. Mail label stamped onto the fabric. More valuable shipments needed more durable mail pouches, such as a 1940s design made from heavy, lined canvas with metal grommets and a leather cinch that could be locked around the opening.
Individual couriers also carried bags. Prior to the 20th century, these bags resembled leather satchels with a single shoulder strap. Though this bag style recalls the wild days of the short-lived Pony Express route of 1860, this basic messenger-bag design persisted through the 1970s. In 1973, the high price of leather forced a switch to canvas messenger bags marked with an official USPS logo.
The earliest USPS uniforms date to 1868. The ensemble included a reversible cape, single-breasted vest, coat, pants, and cap, all made from blue-gray wool with black trim. Postal carriers began wearing numbered metal badges on their caps around 1887. The earliest styles show a wreath or ribbon shape surrounding the employee’s number; sometimes the carrier’s city or state is included. An oval version mounted with an eagle was introduced in 1922 and was used until the badges were discontinued in 1982. Cloth patches, first introduced in the 1950s with a horse and rider logo, are still a required part of USPS uniforms. Today, they feature a version of the eagle logo adopted in the 1970s.
The growing quantity of mail during the 20th century required the USPS to automate certain aspects of the postal process, like letter sorting. Independent entrepreneurs like Joseph Schermack also got into the business, installing vending machines at groceries and drugstores so customers could purchase stamps without visiting a post office. Schermack advertised the improved hygiene of his vending machines, and by 1926 had established the Sanitary Postage Service Corporation.
During World War II, companies like the Shipman Manufacturing Co. and the Postage Stamp Machine Co. marketed their stamp dispensing machines as a way to support the war effort. The USPS finally produced its own stamp vending machine in 1948, and fewer than 10 years later, the department released the Model F Stampmaster, which would make change and speak to customers with quirky prerecorded messages, like “Thank you. Introduce me to your friends. I like friends.”
One of the most recent areas of postal collecting revolves around the Zone Improvement Program (or ZIP) system, which was inaugurated in 1963 to standardize address classifications and upgrade from the two-digit postal zones first implemented 20 years earlier. Initially a voluntary feature, ZIP codes identified the nearest central mail processing facility in its first three digits and the local post office in the last two. Mr. Zip, a cartoon postal carrier, was used by the USPS to publicize the system and encourage customers to try it. His image appeared on posters, forms, and sheets of stamps, as well as children’s products like lunch boxes and thermoses.
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