US Stamps

An upcoming anniversary of collection mailboxes

Apr 3, 2023, 11 AM

U.S. Stamp Notes by John M. Hotchner

Germany will soon be celebrating the 200th anniversary of its first public mailboxes, also known as collection boxes. I recently came across an article published 50 years ago about the 150th anniversary that led to finding a more detailed discussion of the topic by George Camnitzer in the December 1974 issue of the German Postal Specialist, the journal of the Germany Philatelic Society.

That article began: “This year, 1974, is actually the 150th anniversary of the mailbox in Germany. Although the Germans didn’t invent the idea of the mailbox, they made substantial contributions to its improvement — improvements that were copied by dozens of other postal administrations throughout the world.”

An Oct. 31, 1823, notice sent to all Prussian post offices by the postmaster general said in part: “For the convenience of the public and post-office personnel, mailboxes shall be installed at all postoffices in the Monarchy which have had a considerable amount of letters and also in larger cities at convenient places where the public can deposit outgoing letters at any time …”

According to the article, these mailboxes were introduced in Prussia on Jan. 1, 1824.

These first public mailboxes were not that popular with the public until Prussia began issuing postage stamps in 1850 because most people had to go to a post office anyway to pay the charges due.

The article mentions some earlier attempts “with mailboxes or letter-throw-ins” in other countries and in German states before unification. However, it does not mention the United States.

The U.S. Postal Service published a paper in 2017 titled “Mail Collection Boxes: A Brief History.” Among those mentioned were the collection boxes provided in 1842 by City Despatch Post in New York City,

Mail collection was featured on one of the 10 stamps in the Postal Service Employees issue (Scott 1489-1498) of April 30, 1973. This 8¢ Mail Collection stamp (1490) is shown in Figure 1.

Collection boxes in the United States have recently been a victim of declining mail volume. The last figure I could find was that in 2020 there were 142,000 USPS mailboxes. A 2017 inspector general report noted that there were 153,000 in 2016, down from 167,000 in 2011.

In that same period, mail volume decreased in the United States from 171 billion pieces in 2010 to 129 billion in 2021.

There has also been an effort to re-engineer the mailboxes as theft from them has become more of a problem.

But that is not the only problem. Shown in Figure 2 is a 1938 cover addressed to Ohio with the handstamp, “Damaged by fire in Letter Box, Jersey City, N.J.”

Firecrackers, noxious substances, eggs and liquids are among the foreign materials that have been put into mailboxes, and postal authorities have long sought ways to reduce this vandalism.

It will be interesting to see if any countries take note of the public mailbox anniversary next year. I am not counting on our U.S. Postal Service to be among them.

Connect with Linn’s Stamp News: 

    Sign up for our newsletter
    Like us on Facebook
    Follow us on Twitter