Before interstates, blue highways and global overnight delivery, the Rural Federal Delivery brought correspondence and packages to rural mailboxes that were as individual as each resident. Now, as more and more mass-produced Cluster Box Units (CBUs) replace the quirky, personalized mailboxes of our back roads, some say we’re in danger of losing a beloved part of Americana. Others say rural Americans are, like the rest of the country, simply looking to upgrade their service, access and security.
In a world that thrives on cultural icons, mailboxes are peculiarly American expressions of identity. Just take a drive in any area of the country to view the care and creativity that go into designing a mailbox to complement the homeowner’s lifestyle. For example, fiberglass dolphins and manatees or wooden lighthouses are popular in shell-lined coastal areas. Whirligigs, anchors and nautical ropes are also big for ocean-side bungalows. Miniature McMansions with cedar shingles and slate roofs grace the paved drives of gated communities. And small, hollow yurts and geodesic domes stand as sentinels on the dirt roads of Rocky Mountain skiers and backcountry hippies.
Urban apartment dwellers retrieve mail from rows of mailboxes on the first floor, juggling groceries and backpacks as they search for mailbox keys. And then there are those small post offices in places like Tesuque, New Mexico; Moneta, Virginia; and Palisades, New York, where people gathering to socialize and retrieve mail from P.O. boxes can create a tailgate party on a moment’s notice.
Perhaps most interesting are rural mailboxes, as distinctive as the owners at the end of the driveway. While some rural mailboxes boast down-home folk art created in former tobacco barns and meat-curing sheds, others focus on the utilitarian need to withstand the demands of time and weather, feed and seed catalogs, and teenagers cruising the back roads with bats and an urge to use them. There are weathervanes, miniaturized outhouses and birdhouses, farm implements and all manner of patriotic colors and shapes. And it’s common to see clematis, morning glories or roses climbing the mailbox poles or hanging from specially created planting areas around the mailbox.
But lately, more and more residents of American back roads are replacing those family-specific, custom-designed mailboxes with Cluster Box Units (CBUs), which are mass-produced, lockable units that focus not on individual passions and values, but instead on increased security against theft and vandalism; safe, easy access; and an opportunity to modernize.
Is the trend toward CBUs a loss of a major expression of rural personality and a beloved Americana? Or are rural Americans, like the rest of the country, simply looking to upgrade their service, access and security?
Rural Free Delivery: The History
According to the National Postal Museum, a free system of delivering mail was established in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the new postal bill, which made possible mail delivery in cities with populations of 20,000 or higher. Free rural delivery service began as an experiment in 1896 and as an official service in 1902. There were no standards then for mailbox sizes or shapes so patrons often used what was handy on the farm: lard and flour cans, soap and cigar boxes, and syrup and food containers. Patrons were asked to keep their mailboxes “buggy high” to make it easier for the carriers.
It took only five years or so, after complaints of unsuitability by rural carriers, for the Post Office Department to appoint a commission to create commercially designed mailbox standards. Of the 63 mailboxes submitted for consideration, only 14 met the specifications, which meant that patrons who wanted RFD service were required to purchase a box from the selected list of manufacturers.
Today, modern rural mailboxes range from artistically eccentric to intentionally bland, uniform receptacles. More and more, those personalized rural mailboxes at the end of a long driveway, or gathered together at the end of a rural lane, are slowly being replaced by CBUs.
According to Yvonne Yoerger, United States Postal Service (USPS) public relations representative, there is a national emphasis for new housing developments to use CBUs or other types of centralized delivery, such as those found in apartments or condominiums. However, there is no national plan to force customers with rural-type mailboxes to convert them to CBUs.
She says, “Curbside delivery, which can include the ‘long line of rural mailboxes,’ generally can only be converted to another kind of delivery, such as CBU, if the customer agrees in writing. For example, if there are eight boxes in a row and one person disagrees with changing to a cluster box, the individual who chooses not to convert his or her box will retain a curbside box. The local post office will determine if it is cost effective to convert only seven of eight deliveries. The individual curbside boxes must meet USPS standards and specifications for size, placement and safe delivery and collection. If one does not, local postal officials can suspend delivery to that box until it’s replaced, repaired or brought back to standard.”
Yoerger says customers themselves often request the change to CBUs for a variety of reasons, including:
- increased customer service options for holding mail;
- integrated parcel lockers that reduce trips to the post office;
- locked outgoing mail compartments;
- increased security of locked CBUs;
- lessened threat of vandalism to CBUs;
- desire to modernize boxes as replacement becomes necessary; and
- in subdivisions, the opportunity to landscape or incorporate the mailbox area into a community architectural theme.
Safety and access are the top concerns for placement of any mailbox, as are local and state government guidelines, statues or property covenants. For example, Yoerger says, the state of Texas prohibits anyone except the state Department of Transportation (DOT) from putting up mailbox units on state roads. So if a cluster box unit is being installed, the unit must be provided to the DOT to be installed by state employees. Regulations vary across the country, which can present challenges for residents and local postal officials.
Where CBUs are placed on private property, which is common in rural areas where residents have access off the road – a pull-off or similar arrangement – the property owner must provide a signed agreement that the road and boxes will be kept accessible and in good repair. Not usually a challenge, Yoerger says, but it’s another consideration and step in the process.
Maybe the reasons for replacing the unique, personalized mailboxes for a more anonymous, mass-produced product are reflective of the changes in our culture, where everyone seems short of time, overwhelmed with projects to complete and in search of ways to organize and simplify. CBUs are a fast and easy solution for an everyday occurrence: mail delivery. It would be neat and efficient to check it off the to-do list and not have to think about it again for many years to come. Still, it’s probably premature to mourn the demise of the rural mailbox, a place where many people still want to extend a welcome greeting to guests as they turn into the driveway and drive up to the door. /G
Linda Shockley is a writer based in New York City. She wrestles her backpack and handbag each evening while she retrieves her mailbox key and remembers that it wasn’t like this growing up in Virginia.