Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Census of Post Boxes

We've all got a mental image of our neighborhood mail collection box, right? It's SpongeBob MailPants, but blue.

SpongeBob MailPants

(This was found by a friend outside the Miami Children's Hospital. Here's a story about the temporary program, and here's little USPS YouTube video showing how they were made.)

In the old days, however, collection boxes looked different. They were smaller, they were mounted on poles and walls, and they most certainly were not blue. Some older collection box models remain in circulation; today you'll primarily find them in front of rural post offices and around scattered historic districts. These boxes have been around for decades, are seen by some as relics, and are slowly being phased out by the Postal Service due to the added capacity and wider mouth of 'standard' collection boxes.

I found this pole-mounted box in the town of South Hill in southern Virginia last summer. The Postal Service was looking to remove the box shortly.

Pole-mounted post box

Pole-mounted post box

The website of the National Postal Museum describes the history of post boxes in the U.S.:
After the introduction of stamps, people wanted a more convenient place to drop-off their mail than [at] the post office. In the 1850s, the Post Office Department began installing collection mailboxes outside of post offices and on street corners in large cities.

Collection boxes were initially mounted on lampposts. Albert Potts, a Philadelphia iron manufacturer, patented the first of these mailboxes on March 9, 1858 (patent number 19,578).
The website presents a gallery and details regarding ten post boxes of varying models in the Museum's collection. (NOTE: The site doesn't display correctly on some browsers. Furthermore, the site does not include all varieties of old post boxes, including some that you'll see here.) Included with the details are notes regarding collection box colors. To wit, with respect to one 19th-century model:
The boxes were color-coded and were either red or green. Residents considered the red boxes more convenient because mail was picked-up every hour, but the green boxes only had collections four to five times a day and twice on Sundays.
Quoth Wikipedia:
Beginning in 1909, all mail collection boxes were painted a dark green to avoid confusion with emergency and fire equipment. Dark green gave way to olive drab green after World War I, when the U.S. Army donated a large supply of olive drab green paint to the Post Office. Olive drab green subsequently became the standard color for all U.S. mail collection boxes until 1955. On July 4, 1955, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield announced that the Post Office would begin painting all mail collection boxes in red, white, and blue to make them easily identifiable.
I found this non-standard collection box at a rural Pennsylvania post office in 2012:

Red, white and blue post box

(In the old days you'd be more likely to see a red-blue design like those seen here:)

Chauncey, WV; 1978—photo by J. Gallagher

Juanita, ND; 1980—photo by A. Patera

(These, as well as more than 15,000 other photographs, can be found at the PMCC's incredible Post Office Photos site, which I also maintain.)

Some collection boxes take up a life of their own after they're formally retired from service. For example, this Doremus lamppost mailbox now resides at a rural post office in New England, serving as a depository for letters to Santa:

Repurposed Doremus post box

Some readers might remember this box, from the Silver Dollar City CPO in Missouri:

The solid blue collection box theme we know today became the norm in 1971, when the U.S. Postal Service as we know it was established as a result of the Postal Reorganization Act. And despite my highlighting interesting exceptions here, the vast majority of old-style post boxes in use today are [Owens-style mailboxes that are], indeed, also solid blue.

If you're interested in locating such old-style post boxes near you, USPS has hidden a little hint for you within its submissions to the Postal Regulatory Commission's for its 2013 [USPS] Annual Compliance Review. Since many databases that ordinarily could not be accessed except through FOIA requests are submitted as part of the public record, you can find all sorts of interesting data about our postal network. Two massive Excel files provide the locations of all mail collection points (such as blue boxes) and their attendant collection times across the United States. They can be found among the files posted here. You can organize and analyze the data as you see fit.

Virtually all the existing post box examples of which I'm aware are categorized in these databases under TYPE "POST" and "WALL." I used filters within Excel to highlight just those collection points for this article.

This list and map includes all collection points from these databases that are of TYPE: "POST" as well as some of TYPE: "WALL." I have removed the vast majority of "WALL" entries because there appears to be no standard definition for this term. Many postal districts apply it loosely toward generic mail slots in office towers and post office lobbies as well as to any actual blue post boxes that are mounted on walls. So while I have attempted to generate the most informative listings and maps possible from the raw data provided, you should still take these data with one or more grains of salt. (See an error or omission? Let us know in the comments. It is possible that many more post box collection points exist in sporadic but concentrated clusters throughout a couple of metropolitan regions.)

Here is a map of approximately 625 locations in question.

"POST" listings appear pretty accurate. Looks what happens when you employ Google Street View at on one of the points (321 Willings Alley) in Philadelphia:

The oldest post box I've seen was located in downtown Ellensburg, Washington, reputedly from 1905.

This old-style box is in front of the post office in Fort Meade, SD.

Here are images of two post boxes unaccounted for in CPMS data:

Lafe, AR Community Post Office (2012)

Angle Inlet, MN (2013, image courtesy J. Emerson)

All styles of older post boxes are being slowly phased out by USPS. A USPS Delivery Operations specialist notes that "rust is a common enemy" for these boxes, and "there are no parts nor technicians available to repair these boxes if something happens." New standard (four-legged) collection boxes also enable the acceptance of larger flats and Priority envelopes, and so "[USPS does] not disappoint these customers when they arrive at a box" to deposit items larger than letter-sized mail.

Hope you enjoyed your tour of this little neck of the postal woods!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New York's First Subway Station
(and the Post Office That Shaped It!)

Ride a New York subway to the end of the line and it will eventually start heading in the other direction on the track from whence it came. On most lines this turnaround is uneventful: you sit around for several minutes and off the train goes in the other direction. But if, say, you fall asleep on the 6 train and don't get off at the last stop near the southern tip of Manhattan (at the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall Station), you'll soon find yourself winding through the underground equivalent of a video game Easter egg as you physically loop around to head back north. Here you'll catch a glimpse of New York's first (though no longer utilized) subway station. You'll find that the station is gorgeous and utterly unique:

[Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record. Survey number HAER NY-122-49]

The platform forms part of the turnaround loop that is still used by the 6 train today. Located beneath City Hall Park, the original City Hall subway station was the southern terminus of New York's first subway and was inaugurated October 27, 1904. (New York had consolidated as as the five-borough city we know in 1898, drawing vastly more land under a single government; subways were seen as instrumental for ensuring the city's place among the world's great metropolises.) The original subway route took passengers through Midtown, Times Square, and up to the mid-140s past the Upper West Side. You can read more about the stunning station here or here.

So why publish this to a blog about post offices? Consider the unique shape of the subway station: it's an arc, and as it turns out there was a reason for this: given the space New York's original subway cars would need to turn around, there was simply no room to create a flat platform at this location. If you look at the landscape today you'd see no reason why you wouldn't be able to take as much land as you need to turn a train around underground—most of City Hall Park is open parkland. But this was not always true. During the early 1900s there was actually a huge building with a deep, solid foundation on this now-open site: the old Main Post Office for New York. Have a look, and note how the subway just avoids the [foundation of the] post office. In other words, the crescent shape of the subway station was necessary to occupy the space in question. (For the record, north is roughly rightward in this diagram.)


I've superimposed the above schematic onto a Google Maps map below. The Brooklyn Bridge extends from the lower-right corner of the map. There is no trace of the old post office footprint in what is now an open grass area today.

Original City Hall subway Station diagram superimposed on a current map of City Hall Park, New York City

The post office building in question, sometimes referred to during its existence as "Mullett's Monstrosity" after the architect who designed it, was constructed over the course of a decade (1869 to 1880). Designed to enable the processing of more than 100 tons of mail per day, the five-story building also housed federal courts. The building was constructed at what was then $8.5 million. It was the predecessor to the world-famous James A. Farley Post Office Building, which became (and continues to serve as) the main post office for New York. The "Monstrosity," for its part, was completed not a moment too soon; from 1844 to 1875 New York's post office had been housed in a church building constructed in 1731(!).

Here's a photo of the post office building from 1905 (source:, at which you could buy a full-size print if you so desire):

The building extended underground, with a "basement for sorting mail and a sub-basement for machinery" (Wikipedia). And thus it came to pass that the needs of the city's new subway would defer to footprint of the massive federal post office.

Daytonian in Manhattan has a fantastic write-up of the now-demolished federal building, featuring many images of the structure.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Postal Summary

This is the fourth year of the Going Postal annual postal summary. Dang, I've been at this a while now, huh? 2013 brought adventures up and down the east coast from Boston to Florida. I completed a few geographic postal milestones. And, of course, here are the summaries for 2010, 2011, and 2012. This year I visited 837 post offices and other postal facilities across 15 states and the District of Columbia, for a grand total of 5,758 offices. The longest trip I took this summer lasted 29 days, and though I only drove from New York as far as Georgia, my mileage could have taken me across the country twice. Below is my counties-visited map at the end of 2013. Counties visited for the first time -- namely in Appalachia and the Southeast -- are colored dark gray:

The overall count does not include former and discontinued post office locations, such as what is now the Municipal Building in Toccoa, Georgia:

I also make efforts to find and document freestanding mail processing facilities, such as the Logistics and Distribution Facility in Tampa, Florida:

I finally finished visiting every post office on Long Island, in May:

And just this past week I quit procrastinating and completed my visits to every single post office [plus carrier annex, Contract Postal Unit, and other mail processing facility] in New York City:

I visited as many as 30 post offices in one day. State by state, counting only distinct active postal locations:

New Jersey: 112 post offices
Focus/Foci: Northern New Jersey, central shore
(I have now visited more than 75% of the nearly 800 postal facilities in New Jersey.)

Massachusetts: 94
Worcester, southeast Massachusetts

Tennessee: 75
Eastern Tennessee: Bristol to Knoxville

Virginia: 68
I-81 corridor, south-central tier

North Carolina: 63
Southwest N.C., Greensboro

South Carolina: 61
Northwest S.C., southern shore to Charleston

Florida: 59
Tampa / Saint Petersburg

West Virginia: 55
Northeast panhandle, Beckley

Maryland: 54
Baltimore and D.C. suburbs

New York: 49
The South Fork of Long Island

Georgia: 46
Very southeast and northeast corners

Connecticut: 39
Hartford area

Pennsylvania: 29

District of Columbia: 16

Rhode Island: 11

Delaware: 6

The year also brought milestones 5,000 and 5,500...
#5,500: Petersburg, Virginia: Fort Lee Branch post office

Wishing you all a great 2014!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Post Office? Yeah, We've Got That.

Postal Service Counters Replace UPS Services at 82 Staples Locations;
Chain Offers Rewards on USPS Shipping Services

A new partnership between USPS and Staples Inc. offers a promising opportunity for the Postal Service to expand access to its services. A recently announced pilot program, the first such agreement under what USPS terms its Retail Partner Expansion Program, calls for the opening of 82 Contract Postal Units (CPUs) in Staples stores. If successful the program could be expanded to the remainder of Staples's 1,500+ domestic locations, and partnerships between USPS and other large retailers may soon follow. Contract Postal Units involve postal counters that are placed in, and operated by the employees of, other businesses. The operations offer most postal retail products, and do so at standard USPS prices.

Shrewsbury, MA: Staples #59 CPU:

The pilot's 82 locations are clustered in several markets: the San Francisco Bay area (with 29 CPUs); Atlanta (28 CPUs); Pittsburgh (16); San Diego (3); and Worcester, MA (6) -- near Staples's headquarters. The first CPUs opened mid-October, and as of November 15 all 82 are operational. The Postal Service provided Going Postal with a full list of all pilot locations and their respective opening dates. The list can be found at the end of this article.

USPS and Staples held ribbon-cutting ceremonies in various markets to celebrate the pilot venture. At the CPU ribbon-cutting ceremony in Shrewsbury, MA, Staples District Manager Steve Lemieux -- whose father was a Postmaster -- predicted that the new program would be highly effective at serving its small business customers' needs. Mr. Lemieux stated that Staples is always looking to provide the "best value for its customers" and that the USPS counters would help the store "take care of their needs and get them back to their jobs." At the same event USPS's Greater Boston District Manager Charles Lynch declared that the Postal Service had "great expectations" for the project. USPS media releases declare that the program was designed to provide "convenience and options to customers." Reached via email, Postal Service spokeswoman Darleen Reid called the program "win-win for all parties: USPS, Staples, and our customers."

The two organizations will initiate a joint television advertising campaign in the program's test markets beginning November 18. Going Postal has been informed that the program will also be supported with Direct Mail mailings to customers in these areas.

The pilot program ends September 30, 2014, at which point the program will be evaluated and may be expanded or discontinued.

In addition to its network of nearly 32,000 post offices, USPS manages about 3,500 CPUs, most of which are located in locally owned businesses such as pharmacies and gas stations. The Postal Service has previously attempted, though not succeeded with, large-scale Contract Postal Unit programs with national retailers: Sears, Hallmark and (before the chain was bought out by UPS) Mail Boxes Etc. The arrangement with Staples represents USPS's first CPU partnership with a national chain in nearly a decade. This program appears more likely to succeed than its predecessors; USPS's arrangement with Staples appears to be better conceived, better publicized, and better integrated with partner stores.

Staples CPUs are integrated with each store's respective Copy & Print Services center. Store designs vary, and Staples installs the postal counter to mesh with its surroundings. The implementations appear modern, clean, and inviting. Three examples of the integration follow:

Shrewsbury, MA: Staples #59 CPU:

Sturbridge, MA: Staples #1193 CPU:

Westborough, MA: Staples #1216 CPU:

The CPUs are staffed by Copy & Print Center personnel who have received training from USPS employees.

Staples CPUs are operational during all store hours, including Sundays. This means that customers will have the opportunity to purchase stamps and mail packages until [typically] 7-9 P.M. during weekdays, 6-7 P.M. on Saturdays, and 6 P.M. on Sundays. The stores, and thus postal services, are open during most federal holidays as well. (Note: This mail will not necessarily be picked up and processed the day it is entered into the mailstream.)

These Contract Postal Units operations offer most, though not all, standard postal products. The operations, at least at their inception, are offering a variety of stamps including several issues of commemorative Forever and Global Forever stamps. They accept Priority, Priority Express, Standard Mail, and large first-class packages. Most additional services, including Certified Mail, are available.

The following services are not offered at these Contract Postal Units: P.O. Boxes; money orders; Registered Mail; Certificates of Mailing; Library Mail; and (interestingly enough) Media Mail. Furthermore, Staples CPUs do not sell postal stationery such as stamped envelopes and stamped postal cards. According to an official USPS statement, the services provided at Staples CPUs represent a "simplified product portfolio containing our most popular products and services." A Postal Service official stated that Media Mail volumes "are low and [thus] not considered one of our most popular products." USPS has been de-emphasizing Media Mail and some other cheaper services as it promotes Priority Mail and recently rebranded Priority Mail Express. While the omission would affect a relatively small number of transactions, USPS may be nudging customers into utilizing more expensive postal products. (All omitted services are still available at all 'standard' post offices.)

In a unique move among USPS partners, Staples will offer 5% Staples Rewards for the postage on packages paid for and shipped at its Contract Postal Unit locations. Thus, if one ships a $20 Priority Express Mail package and pays for the metered postage at Staples, one would receive $1 in Staples Rewards. "This is our killer app," declared one Staples staffer, suggesting that this aspect of the program would make customers' postal experience noticeably superior to that at other post offices. However, the Staples Rewards offer does not apply to stamps purchased at Staples CPUs.

5% Staples Rewards sign

While the provisions of the Retail Partner Expansion Program have not been publicly disclosed, most individual Contract Postal Units earn a commission of 6% to 10% on postal services rendered. Thus, even if 5% of all package purchases were redeemed as Staples Rewards the company comes out well ahead.

(Customers can receive discounts directly from the Postal Service by utilizing some of its online prepaid services.)

An initial media story -- a local Patch interpretation of USPS's Bay Area news release -- wrongly declared that USPS is paying rent to Staples as part of the pilot arrangement. Such a provision is not part of any standard Contract Postal Unit agreement, and Ms. Reid has confirmed that the precedent holds in USPS's contract with Staples.

This is not the first service arrangement between USPS and Staples Inc. Staples stores have offered booklets of Forever stamps at its checkout counters for several years under as part of USPS's "Alternative Access" program. The Postal Service has similar arrangements with most large retailers, and Staples stores not impacted by the USPS pilot program continue to offer this modest service.

Prior to the pilot program, each Staples store maintained a full-service UPS shipping counter. These services are still offered at all non-pilot program stores. At the 82 CPU locations, UPS computers were disconnected and its services ceased to be offered the moment when Postal Service machines became functional. This step occurs toward the end of the one-to-two-day, four-hour training session that postal staff (including some from Postal Headquarters and other District retail personnel) conduct with Copy & Print Services staff. All Staples locations continue to serve as drop-off points for prepaid UPS parcels. Thus, UPS's arrangement with the 82 USPS pilot sites is similar to that of USPS with its "Village Post Offices," whose counters accept only domestic prepaid [primarily Priority Mail Flat-Rate] packages.

The CPUs operated by Staples are equipped with USPS's new, modern blue-atop-faux-wood counter arrangements that appear in many CPUs and in recently remodeled/relocated post offices. In addition to the primary retail counter, other counter units house Priority Mail Flat-Rate packaging and forms for services such as Certified Mail.

A courtesy letter collection box is located in one of the secondary counter units. It is subtle and, if not marked appropriately, could easily be mistaken for the slot for a garbage can. The Postal Service is looking to install blue collection boxes outside most (if not all) of its Staples CPU locations.

Staples: Internal Mail Collection Point:

The operations utilize a specially developed version of the Postal Service's Contract Access Retail System (CARS) -- a two-monitor, touch-screen arrangement that enables customers to view their transaction as it is processed by a CPU operator.

A large Sonic Eagle sign has been installed on the façade of each Staples CPU location. The sign states "Approved Postal Provider" in place of Contract Postal Unit. The signs light up at night except where prohibited by local zoning ordinances. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that a similar (though possibly smaller) backlit sign installed at a Village Post Office costs about $2,300.

Worcester, MA: Staples #1218 CPU:

Beyond the pre-opening training seminar, local Postal Service managers are available to answer any Staples's staff questions regarding products, services, or technical computer issues. Postal staff appeared to be engaged with, and supportive of, their Staples counterparts.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) has yet to comment on the pilot program. Save the Post Office (STPO) has detailed previous opposition to the CPU pilot program involving Sears stores in 1989. The APWU, which counts as members thousands of full-time post office window clerks, has frequently taken a negative stance on Contract Postal Units. CPUs are perceived as siphoning business from union-staffed post offices, which could result in reduced staffing at -- or the closure of -- nearby post offices. The STPO piece also discusses concerns that such CPU programs might provide a step toward USPS's outsourcing of more operations, which could ultimately result in the privatization of the Postal Service.

Postmasters tasked with managing local Staples operations took a by-and-large positive view of the new outlets during informal discussions. When asked whether the proximity of a new Staples CPU in northeast Worcester might prompt the closure of the small retail post office in the shopping plaza across the street, a Postmaster replied that s/he can't imagine that being the case, especially because local low-income residents are heavy users of money orders (which are not provided at the counters at Staples). Another Postmaster suspected that while the Staples might usurp a bit of the revenue from his/her office, most of the nearby CPU's business would stem from customers who would have otherwise shipped their packages using other carriers. S/he expected that the result would be a "net positive" for the Postal Service.

Two hours after one of the Massachusetts CPUs opened, a large rolling postal hamper was piled high with parcels. Staples staff informed me that the mailing was entered by a local business owner who'd always used the UPS counter at the store to ship his packages. Instead the Postal Service became the recipient of nearly $200 in revenue.

The postal specialist who'd conducted the CPU training called the local post office to request an additional mail collection. Within ten minutes a local carrier had pulled in and rolled the mail hamper out of the Staples and to his truck. At least in central Massachusetts, the program was off to a promising start.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Postal Tour: Mankato, Minnesota

Mankato, MN -- state map

Mankato is a little city with a rich history, located in south central Minnesota about 75 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. It lies along the Minnesota River, a tributary of the Mississippi that merges with said by Saint Paul. The river serves as a county border and separates Mankato (population 40,000) from North Mankato (13,000). This situation inspired Mankato's motto: "A Little Twin Cities, A Lot Minnesota." The river propelled much of Mankato's early development, and the City of Mankato's website notes that "by 1854, U.S. mail was delivered regularly to Mankato due to the efforts of General Store owner George Marsh."

Local sources claim that the town's name was originally Mahkato, meaning "greenish blue earth to [the area's] first inhabitants, the Dakota Indians". Indeed, Mankato is the county seat of Blue Earth County. According to a currently unavailable link referenced by Wikipedia, "a typographical error by a clerk established the name as Mankato" instead of Mahkato.

Here's a local post office map that shows the sites discussed in this story:
Mankato, MN post office map

At the end of the 19th century Mankato was among the largest cities in Minnesota, and the city needed a post office that met its stature. That building still serves as the Mankato main post office today, and an analysis of USPS's Owned Facilities Report reveals that this is among the oldest post office buildings anywhere in the country that is still in operation today. The City of Mankato has published a thorough walking tour of the city and states the following about the post office: "This building was built in 1895 and remodeled in 1933 to the structure seen today. It is constructed of Mankato Kasota stone. Since it blends seamlessly, you can’t tell the difference between additions. The second floor was used for Federal offices and courts. Those who served our country during the last great wars left from here."

The Federal Judicial Center has made available an image from the National Archives taken in 1900. I've edited the photo and made it available on the PMCC's Minnesota Post Office Photos page as well as here.

Mankato, MN post office in 1900

The building was and is still stunning. The local stone is a modest yet distinct orange, and though the clock tower (a common sight for 19th-century federal buildings) was removed during the building's extension to the south (toward where the photographer stood with respect to the above image), the grandeur of the building is evident. The chimney remains and the setbacks above the main building entrances are unique. The signage winds perfectly above the arched doorways. The length of the building doubled during its extension, but the consistency of the architecture makes the front of the building appear seamless.

112 years after the above photograph was taken, I stood at roughly the same spot and snapped this view of the post office as it now stands:
Mankato, MN post office in 2012

According to USPS documents the "Mankato MPO is a USPS-owned 69,839 square-foot facility that houses 42 [carrier] routes, Postmaster and staff, the Area-2 Manager of Post Office Operations and staff, retail and post office box operations."

Across the river North Mankato possesses a more modest post office, albeit one with part of the local art walking tour in front of it:
North Mankato, MN branch post office, 2012

According to the most recent USPS Leased Facilities Report available, the North Mankato post office lease calls for a mere 667 square feet of leased space at $6,160 per year. (That particular contract expired in July; the current cost isn't available.) The post office is a finance unit, housing retail operations and PO Boxes but no carriers.

Mankato's Processing and Distribution Facility (P&DF) was the mail processing hub for southwest Minnesota until implementation of USPS's Area Mail Processing plan took (or will soon take) those operations to Minneapolis. According to USPS documents posted prior to consolidation, "the existing 78,734 square-foot facility on an 8.0 acre site was originally occupied in 1992. The Mankato [P&DF] currently processes all originating and destinating letters and flats, and incoming Priority/FCM parcels for the 560 and 561 offices. In addition to processing operations, the facility houses a Business Mail Entry Unit (BMEU)."

Mankato, MN P&DF:
Mankato P&DF

The facility held more than 100 jobs until what will be the consolidation of both originating (incoming, to-be-cancelled) and destinating (processed, to-be-delivered) mail operations; the facility continues to be used for a handful of postal operations. Originally slated to occur in 2014, cancelling operations were moved to Minneapolis on June 1. An April 11 article in The Mankato Free Press states: "The facility's larger operation is the sorting of mail coming in from other processing centers around the country and sending it on to the proper post offices in a region that stretches from Hills (just east of the South Dakota line) to Albert Lea to Waseca to Belle Plaine. That work is anticipated to be transferred to Minneapolis in just under a year." Local APWU president Paul Rodgers said he expected those consolidations to occur this coming February. Finally, the massive Minneapolis/St. Paul Network Distribution Center (NDC) will absorb a few other operations from Mankato.

Like the North Mankato branch post office, Mankato's Madison East Station is a non-carrier finance facility with retail operations and PO Boxes. Located in the back of a sizable shopping plaza, the 1,326-square-foot facility is leased until 2017 for $16,170 per year.

Mankato, MN: Madison East Station post office:
Mankato, MN: Madison East Station post office Finally, there Mankato's Hy-Vee supermarket has a Contract Postal Unit at the customer service counter in the front of the store.

Mankato, MN: Hy-Vee CPU
Mankato, MN: Hy-Vee CPU