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Random Thoughts

Snail mail

Hudson Cooper
Posted 4/21/23

The use of the term “snail mail” connotes that getting something sent through the post office is a slow process. That is true when compared with the speed of transmitting via computers or …

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Random Thoughts

Snail mail


The use of the term “snail mail” connotes that getting something sent through the post office is a slow process. That is true when compared with the speed of transmitting via computers or cell phones. A garden snail is a gastropod that travels at a rate of 0.03 mph; while a sloth, the epitome of slow-moving entities, reaches a speed of 0.17 mph. Compared to a snail, a sloth is the Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom.

Recently I went to the post office to mail my water bill payment. The water company is situated a few hundred yards from my local post office. In fact, the water company has a post office box about five feet away from mine. So, why does it take a week for them to receive my check? Well, it turns out that all the mail first goes by truck to a processing center hours away from my local post office. Once there, my envelope joins thousands of other pieces of mail going through a complicated sorting process. Once sorted and bundled, my envelope with my water bill payment is loaded into a truck and shipped back to local post offices including the one I use. Then the clerk sorts through the post office box mail depositing the mail into the proper slot. So, to sum it up, my mail went on a hundred-mile, multiple days loop and wound up in a box a few feet from mine. It is no wonder that so many people are opting to pay bills online.

Of course, instead of driving to a post office, many people deposit their mail in official post office mailboxes located around the county. Such was not the case in the early 1800’s. People had to travel to the post office to send and receive their mail. 

In 1858, Albert Potts was granted a patent for a box that could be attached to lampposts throughout a neighborhood. But the design was flawed, allowing for rain and snow to seep into the box and ruin its contents. 

In 1891 Philip Bell Downing developed a mailbox that had a design that is still being used today. His blue colored USPS mailboxes on four legs made it easier for people to send letters. He called his design the “street level box.” Unlike earlier attempts to build a better box, Downing’s design had a hinged opening that prevented moisture from seeping in. Also, to combat the rise in mail theft, the hinged opening prevented thieves from reaching in to steal the mail. He called his invention the “street letter box.” As I mentioned in previous columns you can look at the drawings submitted for all patents just by typing in the U.S. patent number. Downing’s street letter box patent numbers are 462,092 and 462,093.

His mailbox invention began being used nationwide. People could post letters in the box without fear of water damage or theft. Downing must have had mail on the brain. After interviewing letter carriers, he learned that his mailbox was so popular that it was difficult to empty it. Months after he was granted a patent for his popular mailbox, Downing also patented his invention of an interior mailbox chute that made it easier for the mail carriers to empty.

 Downing still had mail on his mind. He turned his attention to envelopes. He grew tired of hearing people complain that they hated the taste left on the tongue after licking the glue on an envelope. Still in use today, an envelope contains a strip of “seal glue” on the “seal flap.” To help people avoid licking the glue, Downing patented an envelope moistener. Simple in design, it was a roller with a self-contained water reservoir that moistened the glue on envelopes and stamps.

Downing had a lengthy career as a postal clerk before going to that big post office in the sky in 1934 at the age of 77. Perhaps someday his fixation with mail will be commemorated by the issuance of a stamp in his honor.

Hudson Cooper is a resident of Sullivan County, a writer, comedian and actor.


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