History of Mail Service and Mailboxes

National Mailboxes is dedicated to educating our visitors about everything related to mailboxes and the mail service that we rely on today. Below you will find articles about everything from how the postal service came to be to the history of mailboxes. Please browse below to learn more.

A Brief History of Mailboxes

Without the invention of the lowly mailboxes, civilization would have been very different. Good thing someone had the great idea to invent a sturdy receptable that would hold the world’s most important and earliest form of communication — the letter.

Before the 1850s, mailboxes were non-existent. They became necessary after the invention and widespread use of postage stamps, which allowed people more freedom in sending letters. With stamps, it was no longer necessary to purchase postage from the local post office.

Mailboxes become a must
Mailboxes became a necessity in 1863, when citizens began enjoying Free City Delivery. Letter carriers hand-delivered people’s mails directly to their doorstep without any charge. Although the residential mailbox was already useful then, it wasn’t until 1923 when it became mandatory for each household to have a mailbox or at least a letter slot. This ensured that people received their letters and letter carriers performed their jobs.

The right-sized mailbox
To ensure some form of uniformity when it came to the common mailbox, the U.S. Postal Service required that mailboxes for homes were big enough to make room for letter envelopes and magazines and be sturdy enough to withstand the weather and regular wear and tear. It should also have some sort of signaling device to alert someone that there is a letter inside the box for the recipient or that a package had arrived.

The most common type of mailbox used for residences is the tunnel style. It was designed in 1915 by an employee at the Post Office named Roy J. Joroleman, who was also an engineer. In some places, such as urban areas, mailboxes and letter slots were designed so they can be installed to the exterior of a home.

Collecting mail
To make things more convenient for people, collection mailboxes began to be installed in the 1850s so people didn’t have to go to the post office to send letters. At first they were installed on lampposts but these units were later replaced by free-standing mailboxes in 1894.

The Beginning of the United States Postal System

Before the establishment of the US Postal system, Colonial Americans corresponded by asking friends, family, Native Americans and traders to bring their letters for them. The problem was that the bulk of correspondences were meant for England. In order to accommodate this demand, a mail drop was designated to allow a more organized means to send and receive letters. It wasn’t long before post routes were opened and regular month posts ran from one town to the next, allowing people better opportunities to communicate.

By 1707, the North American postal service was run by the British government. With the appointment of Benjamin Franklin as postmaster, a publisher and printer, important changes were effected. After inspecting the post offices in the North and South, routes were planned and milestones placed on major roads. The time it took for mail to arrive in Philadelphia from New York was cut in half. These changes proved worthwhile — for the first time, the post office posted a profit. More post roads were opened and mails were sent regularly between America to England. Franklin is credited for instituting the necessary improvements to make the postal service more efficient and many of his changes are still being implemented today.

In 1781, after the Articles of Confederation was ratified, Congress was granted the power to establish and regulate how the postal service was run. The laws and other regulations regarding the nation’s post offices were codified in October 1782.

When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Postmaster General office was established and the number of post offices and post roads increased. The firs headquarters of the Post Office was established in Philadelphia. After the seat of government was transferred to Washington, DC in 1800, the office was moved there as well. The Post Office was established by Congress as executive department in 1872.

How the United States Post Office Helped Develop Transportation

The period between the American Revolution and WWI marked a significant era that showed just how important and influential the Post Office had become, particularly in the field of transportation. Transportation played a key role in ensuring quick and efficient mail delivery and with demand for better postal service increasing, the department needed to come up with a viable solution soon. The Post Office pioneered and supported inventions that had the potential to move mail faster and more safely. It didn’t matter that some of those inventions were embarrassing or just total failures.

Mail delivery initially was performed on foot or horseback by messengers or people who were doing a friend or acquaintance a favor. In the 19th century, dedicated stagecoaches were used to deliver the mail. By 1813, the Post Office was already using steamboats to bring mail to post towns that were difficult to reach by road. Trains were used beginning in 1831, 7 years before railroads were even considered post roads. Mail delivery using trains were used to service short routes.

The Horseless Wagon
The pioneering attitude of the US Post Office made it possible for them to experiment with newer and better ways to transport mail. By 1896, the newest mode of transportation, referred to as the horseless wagon was already being developed. It didn’t only offer a faster and more affordable means to carry mail, it would also later take the place of the horse and stagecoach. By 1899, the Post Office had already tested the feasibility of utilizing the automobile for collecting mail in New York. The first contract that would allow an automobile to carry mail was entered into in 1901. This involved transporting mail from the post office in Buffalo, New York to the postal office located in the grounds of the Pan American Exposition. The automobile traveled 4.5 miles in 35 minutes but it was enough to convince the government and the department to enter into another contract the next year.

The US Post Office used the automobile under contracts for 13 years beginning in 1901. It stopped only because of the high fees charged for the service and because of fraudulent activities. By late 1914, Congress approved the use of a dedicated motor vehicle exclusively for postal delivery.

The US Postal Service’s Pony Express

The 19th century saw the steady growth and flow of the U.S. population, who moved to reside, work and do business in the new territories of Louisiana, California and Oregon. Families, groups and individuals moved along trails in Sante Fe, Oregon and Mormon on wagon trains. The roads were rough and in many cases, dangerous. Many passengers lost their lives through disease, pestilence, hunger and ambushes but it didn’t stop the pioneers.

With the discovery of gold in California, people flocked to the colony to prospect. To provide a service to the growing population, a contract for mail delivery was signed by the Post Office with the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. The mail route was tedious in that mail had to be brought by ship to Panama from New York, transferred by rail and delivered by ship to San Francisco. Mail was also sent to California on land through the military who would travel to Santa Fe from Fort Leavenworth and back but even this didn’t make the delivery faster.

In an attempt to solve the problem, semi-weekly deliveries were scheduled from Missouri to San Francisco, a 2,800-mile journey. The mail was supposed to reach the postal station in 24 days but it often took several months to get delivered.

The Pony Express
In early 1860, William H. Russell advertised for young men to service the California mail route. Russell had not been successful at getting a contract to carry mail from Missouri to California. The roads were considered difficult because of weather conditions but this didn’t stop Russell from organizing what would later become the Pony Express. Russell’s company was the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. The plan was to build relay stations and deliver mail by horse. The young riders were hired and the Pony Express was born, beginning its operations in 1860. It took a Pony Express Rider to deliver the company’s first mail 10 1/2 days, half the time it took the stage service to do the same. It was also the Pony Express who would deliver the inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. The time it took to do so? 7 days, 17 hours.

The US Railway Mail Service: How the Iron Horse Made History

Long before the operations of the legendary Pony Express, trains were the main mode of transportation for mail. The Stourbridge, a locomotive built in England, made the first run in Hondesdale, Pennsylvania. A second train, the Tom Thumb, became the first steam-powered locomotive to be used for delivery in 1830. It ran a little over 10mph and was actually outran by a horse. By the next year, however, a speedier locomotive appeared, running a then-impressive 30mph. By 1832, contracts were granted to use rail transportation to move mail, in conjunction with stage services.

In 1838, after the designation of railroads across the US as postal routes, railway mail service increased. Deliveries were accompanied by route agents who ensured that mails were exchanged and delivered. It was also the route agents’ job to sort the mail depending on which route points they were supposed to be sent. This ensured that mails specified for a certain route will be delivered and not sent someplace else. It wasn’t long before transit mail was being distributed on these post-office-on-wheels.

The first railroad postal route was established in 1864 when a general distribution postal car went into service for the Chicago to Clinton, Iowa route. Other routes were established thereafter. Initially, only letter mail was sorted on the postal cars but by 1869, other types of mail were also sorted.

Trains as a means of transporting mail turned out to be fast and efficient, prompting the US to add more and more trains to service postal routes. In 1930, over 10,000 iron horses were utilized to ensure that mail reached its destination, regardless of how big or small the village, town or city was. After the 1958 Transportation Act was passed, passenger trains carrying mail began to decline in popularity. Only 190 mail-carrying trains were left in 1965. By 1970, it was rare to find First Class mail on the railroads and only 8 routes remained. In 1971, seven of these routes were terminated. The last, a post office that serviced the route from New York to Washington, DC ended its run in June 1977.

The Post Office Service Role in the US Confederate States

The Confederate States of America established the Post Office Department in 1861. About 2 weeks later, Montgomery Blair was appointed as the Postmaster General of the United States. The next day, John H. Reagan was also appointed Postmaster General of the Confederate States by Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

At this time, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana had already seceded. This was followed months later by Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee. Reagan, however, allowed postmasters in the South to continue servicing accounts in the North, at least until after the organization of the postal system in the Confederate States.

Reagan also offered postal service jobs to men from the South, asking them to work in Washington. It was a good move, since many of these men accepted posts and brought with them their knowledge and expertise, along with useful information and documents relating to the postal service.

In mid-1961, a proclamation was issued by Reagan stating his intention to take control of the Confederate States’ postal service. In response, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair ordered the delivery of mails to the South to stop.

Reagan was a very capable head of the Confederate Post Office but problems continuously plagued the department. To correct them, Reagan increased postage rates, streamlined mail routes, cut pay and the number of personnel but it wasn’t enough. The North’s army was closing in and there was a shortage of stamps which greatly affected the South’s postal operations.

Federal postal service only resumed gradually in the South as the war ended. By late 1865, nearly 250 postal routes were already up and running to service the Southern states. About a year later, over 3,000 of the 8.902 post offices were turned over to be placed under federal control.

For his troubles, Reagan was arrested but was eventually pardoned. He later headed the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.

The Establishment of Free City Delivery

Letters sent during the early years of the 19th century did not use envelopes. Letters were instead folded and addresses written on the back of the paper. Letters were also only delivered to addresses in about 40 cities, for an extra charge, of course. For the rest, recipients had to go to the post office to claim their letters. Postage stamps were already being sold in 1847 but many mailers still opted to send mails with postage fees charged to the recipients. This spelled out losses for the Post Office because many recipients refused letters that they had to pay for.

By 1858, mail collection boxes began appearing in the streets of large cities. Residents of large cities didn’t enjoy free mail delivery until 1863. By 1890, mail was already being delivered to residents of cities in the United States by over 450 post offices.

Residents of rural areas and farmers had to wait until the late 1890s to begin enjoying free delivery. This meant a great deal to many families living in farms, whose only means to communicate with other people and learn about the latest news was the mail that came in. For many families, the nearest post station was several miles away, requiring a day-long round trip. One farmer in Missouri even stated that in the 15 years he spent picking up his mail, he had covered 12,000 miles. Because of the distance and the inconvenience of the trip, it wasn’t uncommon for farmers to just put off picking up their mail, sometimes for as long as a few months.

The plan for the Rural Free Delivery was delayed because of strong opposition from critics who believed delivering mail to rural areas would be too expensive and impractical. The RFD was implemented nevertheless and opened up great opportunities for developing the road and highway system of America. Because roads had to be good to be used for mail delivery, local governments began spending to build bridges and construct highways, linking Americans everywhere.

The Birth of Parcel Post and Air Mail

Thanks to the improvement of the mail delivery system to rural areas, Americans began to enjoy more conveniences, demanding for a means to deliver small packages of medications, food, dry goods, tobacco and other items that were not readily available to them. The implementation of a parcel post service was strongly opposed by merchants and express companies but rural residents comprised more than half of the population and were a potentially large market.

The Parcel Post
Parcel post was established in 1912 and began operating in 1913. This was after the issue underwent a series of debates in Congress and stockholders of an express company were paid out of a sizable dividend. When parcel became law, people across America used the service to mail thousands of items during its first week. It was a welcome jolt to the economy and gave birth to the mail-order industry. The product catalogs from Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co. became one of the most coveted items in the mail.

Banking on the postal service
Congress signed an Act in 1919 to establish a savings system using the nation’s post offices. The system offered 2% interest p.a. for deposits starting at $1 up to $2,500. By 1929, Americans had deposited over $150 million on the Postal Savings System. By the end of the war, the amount had reached the billion-dollar mark. Deposits only decreased when banks began offering higher interest rates and insurance, along with high-interest savings products. The savings system ended its run in July 1967.

The US government didn’t truly appreciate the potential of the airplane initially. Once again, it was the Post Office Department who would consider this new mode of transportation as an important tool for carrying mail. After the success of many experimental flights, Congress finally offered support to initiate a system involving planes for mail delivery. Radio stations were built on flying fields to help alert pilots about the weather, paving the way for the widespread use of radio communication in lieu of telegraphs. In 1921, night and day flights began to be scheduled for the San Francisco-New York route. In 1926, the first flight by a commercial airmail plane occurred and commercial airlines began to take over. As mail took to the skies, it also brought with it great innovations in technology and service, improving the lives of many Americans.

Rise of the Modern Residential Mailbox

In times past, people sometimes had to visit a local post office to receive mail. This was inconvenient, especially in the days before modern vehicles. For the postal service, workers would have difficulty delivering mail to every address safely and accurately. Mailboxes could vary in type and placement. Therefore, a new solution was needed for both parties.

The curbside modern mailbox, though it existed in various forms before then, saw its permanent rise in 1923, when the postal service required them for residential properties. These requirements happened because such mailboxes made mail delivery easier for the postal service.

At first, different types of models proliferated. Residential mailboxes could come in plastic, metal, or other materials. This was in an effort to protect them from damage and weathering. However, as the 20th century went on, the metal mailbox became the most popular type of residential mailbox due to its sturdiness and resistance to weathering. Different finishes and accessories became more popular as well. A few different types of residential mailboxes emerged, too. Wall mounted residential mailboxes became a popular option in areas without enough curb space for a standard model.

The security of mail is taken seriously by the USPS, so locking mailboxes have become more popular as well. Many also now come in larger sizes to accommodate the ever-growing need for package delivery. Locking curbside mailboxes are useful for commercial delivery as well, especially those with larger compartments.

Collection mailboxes, adopted by the postal service in the 1850’s, were made for the public to deposit outgoing mail and first appeared in cities. By the end of the century, freestanding collection boxes appeared on city corners and other high-traffic areas. In recent years, the use of public collection boxes has waned. Collection slots are now often included with commercial and residential mailboxes, including those designed for centralized delivery.

Centralized Mail and Package Delivery

Apartment buildings and other multi-family properties have grown more common since the start of the 20th century, particularly in cities. This meant that during that time, the need for multi-family mail delivery rose and grew. New solutions for safe and easy mail delivery were needed.

In the past, door slots and unsecured rows of curbside mailboxes were the go-to way for residents of such properties to receive their mail. However, mail slots were tedious as the postal service would have to visit each apartment individually to deliver mail, often having to navigate multiple flights of stairs and elevators. Other multi-family properties had this issue as well, and mail theft could become an issue. Mail slots and curbside mailboxes also didn’t allow for package delivery, leading to theft and damage.

New forms of centralized mail delivery were needed for ease of delivery and security. At first, the Neighborhood Delivery Collection Box Unit, or NDCBU, became a convenient option for centralized delivery in some neighborhoods and multi-family properties. Many family units or commercial units were included on one pedestal. However, these units weren’t very secure, and have become outdated.

Also in the 20th century, other types of centralized mail delivery became popular due to improved security and versatility. The 4B series of multi-family and business mailboxes were designed to mount directly to walls in apartment lobbies and commercial buildings. The customer compartments, of which there could be several to dozens in each cabinet, were locking, but the units themselves allowed for direct postal service delivery to each one. Customer compartments could be square or vertical.

However, these mailboxes also became outdated late in the 20th century and beyond with the rise of online shopping.

Package delivery picked up in 1913 as a parcel post service, thanks to the advent of rail delivery. A rise in catalogue shopping followed, as customers no longer needed to travel to retrieve packages, even in rural areas.

Nearly a century later, the handling of packages increased rapidly as online shopping became more popular. More mail security was needed, and the postal service needed a way to safely and easily deliver packages to multi-family properties.

The 4C series of multi-family and commercial mailboxes became more popular due to their improved security and inclusion of parcel lockers, which hold packages for customers safely until retrieval. These mailboxes were designed to improve upon and replace old NDCBU’s and 4B mailboxes, and became required for new installations in 2006. They also provide easy, centralized delivery of regular mail and are more secure and attractive than their older counterparts.