Rural Mailboxes

Mailboxes of all sizes and shapes line the gallery
Mailboxes of all sizes and shapes lined the gallery.

When Rural Free Delivery Service began, first as an experiment in 1896 and later as an official service in 1902, patrons looked around their homes and farms for anything they could find to use as a mailbox. As a result, rural letter carriers found themselves face-to-face with a hodgepodge of homemade, semi-functional "mailboxes." Old coal oil, syrup and food containers were dragged out, sometimes with sticky remnants of the original contents pooled inside the box, and slapped on top of poles set out along the road.

black and white photo of a room full of mailboxes
Room full of boxes submitted for consideration

In 1901, after having received a fair share of complaints from rural carriers about the large number of often unsuitable assortment of mailboxes used by their patrons, the Post Office Department appointed a five-man commission to examine commercial rural mailbox designs. Of the 63 mailboxes submitted for consideration, only 14 met the specifications, which meant that patrons who wanted R.F.D. service would have to buy a box from the selected list of manufacturers.

The companies on that first list included the Postal Improvement Company of Norristown, Pennsylvania, Bates-Hawley of Joliet, Illinois, A.L. Henry, American Metal Company of Ladoga, Indiana, Century Post Company and Bond Steel Post Company, both of Adrian, Michigan, the Century Rural Mail Box Company of Detroit, Michigan and the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company of New Britain, Connecticut.

Mailboxes line a rural road
Mailboxes line a rural road.

Postal officials had hoped that by selecting 14 companies, the consumer would be able to pick and choose the best mailbox at the best price. Naturally, just about every metal-manufacturing company in the country wanted to be included and the list of selected companies grew quickly. Companies who were not chosen began to complain about a mailbox "monopoly."

The Post Office Department agreed that any company could manufacture rural mailboxes, provided the boxes were made to postal specifications. By 1903, 46 different companies were manufacturing rural delivery mailboxes. Mailboxes that passed scrutiny are still marked "Approved by the Postmaster General." 

Patrons were asked to keep their mailboxes "buggy high" and within easy reach of the carriers. Today, right-hand drive vehicles ensure that carriers can make quick mail exchanges without getting out of their cars or driving on the wrong side of the road.

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[Silent film]

Rural letter carrier poses between a patron's mailbox and his new automobile
Rural letter carrier poses between a patron's mailbox and his new automobile.
A pair of tunnel-shaped mailboxes stick out of a snowy drift along a road
A pair of tunnel-shaped mailboxes stick out of a snowy drift along a road.
a tunnel-shaped mailbox with a raised red signal flag

To make it easier for rural carriers to use rural mailboxes, Postmaster General Albert Burleson approved the use of the now-familiar tunnel-shaped mailbox. It was designed in 1915 by a Post Office engineer, Roy J. Joroleman. A signal flag was attached to the mailbox, which the carrier raised once the mail had been placed inside. Customers also raised the signal flag when they placed outgoing mail in the mailbox to make sure the carrier would stop.