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Soap Boxes Won't Do

by James H. Bruns

Volume 5, Issue 3
July–September 1996

When Rural Free Delivery started as an experiment on October 1, 1896, nobody knew how long it would last. The frugal farmers who lived along the first rural routes in West Virginia were unwilling to spend good money on mailboxes. Lard cans, old nail crates, feed boxes, and other secondhand crates would do just fine for starters. After a while, the jumble of soap and cigar boxes became a pathetic roadside spectacle, characterized as "so much variety and inharmony [sic]." The Post Office Department declared that this hodgepodge "detracted from the tone of the general system and gave it anything but the appearance of a government institution." 

Being a government institution, the Postal Service tried to encourage uniformity wherever possible. Although farmers could not be forced to buy the same brand of box, the Post Office Department decided that "boxes on each route should be of uniform construction." In 1901, the Postal Service convened a committee to "pass judgment upon the merits of the different boxes" available on the open market. The committee's specifications for commercial boxes were loose: 

All boxes had to be produced "in the best workmanlike manner." Seams and joints had to be constructed so that rain, snow, or dust would not get into the box when the lid was closed. Boxes were to be constructed from sheet metal, and galvanized if possible. 

Rectangular boxes were to be at least 18 x 6 x 6 inches in size; cylindrical boxes were to be not less than 18 x 6 inches. 

Boxes opening from the side or top were preferred. 

All boxes had to have an adjustable and durable metallic signal that would show when mail was inside. 

Each box had to be located by the roadside so that the carrier could have easy access without dismounting from his vehicle. 

The committee agreed on designs from 14 different manufacturers. On March 16, 1901, the committee announced its decision by way of letters to the lucky firms, which made for sweet reading for company officials. After 1901, the boxes on new routes were to be from one of the 14 firms. Depending upon the size and style, these commercially produced boxes were priced from the no-frills 50-cents model to boxes that came with small locks, costing several dollars. 

Unfortunately, some postal patrons still refused to purchase the commercial boxes. Many holdouts simply made their own, which prompted the postal service to put its foot down. The Post Office Department issued a decree that "unless the boxes built on new routes are of approved patterns, they will not be served by rural carriers." This edict sometimes got carriers into hot water with their customers. One letter carrier reported how he was ordered to tell six different families to fix their broken mailboxes, which they did. Six months later he had to tell the same families to make additional repairs or replace them within thirty days, or service would be cut off. For conveying this message, "I came pretty near to getting lynched," the carrier said. 

An Array of Different Styles

With so many designs available, deciding which box to buy was a tough decision. Rural dwellers often relied on the expert opinions of their letter carriers, who were often a trusted neighbor. Mailbox manufacturers soon recognized that farmers often asked their letter carriers for advice in such manners and so developed several schemes for hawking their boxes. 

This, of course, created a conflict of interest for the letter carriers and did not sit well with postal officials, who quickly nipped the practice in the bud. Soliciting sales was declared improper conduct for carriers and it was clearly stated that "officials and employees of the Post Service Department shall not act as agents for manufacturers of rural mailboxes and shall not be interested, directly or indirectly, in the manufacturer or sale of any rural mailbox." 

Obtaining a mailbox soon became the covenant for service. Postal officials made it clear that to establish service, a prescribed number of families had to qualify "as patrons either by [building] approved boxes on the proposed line of travel or filing written agreements that they will join with others in the use of boxes." Without such assurances, no route was authorized. 

By 1913, many styles of mailboxes were available, but few were large enough to hold large-sized parcels, which became a major concern with the arrival of Parcel Post. The average rural mailbox was large enough to hold several letters, a small package, and a wrapped newspaper. When a parcel was too big to fit in a patron's box, a small "Could-Not-Deliver" card was left instead. The card explained how the patron could pick up the parcel at the post office. Another arrangement was to leave the package in a larger box at the base of the letterbox. 

Carriers universally considered many "approved" boxes, like the Bates-Hawley, Beaver, and Yessler models, too small. Although an array of different styles were available, letter carriers were not really pleased with any of them. At the 1916 convention of the National Association of Rural Letter Carriers, delegate John B. Newcomer exclaimed to the assembly, "I have mailboxes galore, the likes of which I will get no more . . . [All of them] are about as much account as a lard can with the lid taken off." 

Before 1915, rural mailboxes appeared in almost every shape and size imaginable. However, letter carriers were not pleased with any of the designs. The postal service then organized another committee to examine the models available. They also examined alternate designs from inventors and manufacturers. None of them quite fit the bill. This prompted the Post Office Department to design its own box. The now familiar tunnel shaped box was designed in 1915 by postal engineer Roy Joroleman. 

"Everyone had an idea as to what to use for a rural mailbox with the result that I was asked to design a box," recorded Joroleman in his journal. To encourage widespread acceptance and availability, Joroleman's design was not patentable, nor were restrictions set upon the box's manufacturer or sale. Local postmasters were even furnished with lists of manufacturers and prices of the new boxes. 

Joroleman's tunnel shaped boxes were manufactured in two sizes—a small size for ordinary letter mail, and a larger size for all classes of mail, including Parcel Post. Patrons were not immediately required to discard existing boxes. Older style boxes could still be used as long as they remained functional. However, after July 1, 1916, only the newer style could be installed. In December 1928, the specifications were approved for the larger tunnel shaped box. Known as the "Number 2 Size Box," it was large enough to hold letter mail as well as parcels. The larger size box was adopted for use on July 1, 1929.