Thursday, July 19, 2007

You Got Mail

Despite the popularity of email, postal mail service is still widely used worldwide. In fact, according to CNN in 2004, there were 425 billion pieces of mail sent annually around the world. India has the world's largest postal system, with 154,000 post offices and 60,000 postment delivering 53 million pieces of mail each day. China is second with 57,000 post offices. The U.S., by comparison, has only 38,000 post offices.

Before stamps were introduced in America, mailing a letter cost about 25 cents during that time when the average salary was $1 a day. In 1847, the post office introduced a 5 cents stamp featuring Benjamin Franklin, which could be used for letters mailed 300 miles and a 10 cents stamp with George Washington, which could get your letter across the U.S. Once stamps allowed postage to be paid beforehand, street corner mailboxes became possible and at a suggestion of a novelist and postal employee named Anthony Trollope, the first four were installed on the isle of Jersey on November 23, 1852.

When email became popular, postal mail got the monicker "snail mail" which is meant to show that postal services is too slow compared to the immediate delivery of messages thru email. If the usual week-long delivery of letter is deemed "snail" nowadays, I wonder how the following should be called:
  • Bearing a 3-cent stamp and a February 17, 1936 postmark, the letter from a grandmother in Weirton, Pennsylvania was finally delivered in 1994. That was 58 years. In the letter, she is promising the recipient that she will come see her newborn grandchildren.
  • A valentine card posted in 1932 reached a young couple living in the former addressee's house in 1998, or 66 years after. Coincidentally, they were to be married the next day.
  • Postmarked Feb. 6, 1908, a black-and-white postcard addressed to Fanny Myers of Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, asked her to send a cashmere sweater to her sister. On Oct. 22, 2001 (94 years after), the postcard was found in a batch of letters to be deliverd at the Jersey Shore Post Office.
Speed has always been an issue with postal services, and even before email, people are trying to figure out a way to deliver mail faster. On June 8, 1959, the U.S. submarine Barbero conducted the first and last test of so-called "Missile Mail". This is to use a warhead-less Regulus cruise missile to carry postal containers, in hope to make the delivery of mail faster.

While email obviously have the speed advantage, postal mail has its own advantages. For one, you can only send messages, photos, music or any sort of file thru email. While, you can virtually send anything thru mail (depends on your country's laws, of course).

Most postal employee can tell you lots of stories about weird objects being sent thru mail, but the strangest of all was a 5-year old kid. On February 19, 1914, the parents of May Pierstorff paid 50 cents to have her mailed from Grangeville to Lewiston, Idaho, to avoid the higher train fare. Similary, the Chicago Tribune reports that a 28-year old midget once mailed himself from New York to Los Angeles, paying $68.15 in postage.

In 1916, a merchant named W.H. Coltharp mailed an entire bank building in individual pieces from Salt Lake City to Vernal, Utah. During that time, there was no road between the two cities, and Coltharp figured he'd save money by mailing all 80,000 of the building's bricks over the 427-mile route. That's 40 tons! Shortly after, the post office put out an advisory saying that "it is not the intent of the U.S. Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail," and banned the practice.

Random Odds & Ends
  • An average American receives about 572 junk mail annually, and 44% of those are being thrown without being read.
  • In the U.S., there are, on average, 8 cases of dog attacks on mailmen per day.
  • The world's first stamp issued was the British Penny Black on May 6, 1840.
  • ZIP (Zoning Improvement Plan) code, a five-digit code had been assigned to every address throughout the country was first used in the U.S. on July 1, 1963, and in 1967, the Post Office required mailers of second-class and third-class bulk mail to presort by ZIP Code.
  • In February 1911, a French pilot, named Henri Pequet, flew with 6,500 pieces of mail in a biplane from Allahabad, India to Naini (a distance of 6 miles). This flight was the first official Air Mail in the world.

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