When Benjamin Franklin served as postmaster of Philadelphia back in 1737, his main concern was ensuring the prompt delivery of mail to the city's growing population. More than 250 years later, that's still the top priority of postal officials.
However, much has changed. It has been 132 years since the first street letter boxes for mail collection were installed in Boston and New York. Today, mail is no longer delivered by stagecoach or horseback, although at times it may seem so. Mailboxes, too, have changed with the times.
Once merely nondescript receptacles into which cards and letters were deposited, mailboxes now run the gamut--from simple hole-in-the-door slots to elaborate designer boxes.
Those who want something more can turn to More-Than-a-Mailbox. That's the name of an unusual line of mailboxes that takes its inspiration from nature. The colorful mailboxes, made of wood treated to withstand the elements, are designed to resemble pigs, crocodiles, cows, swordfish, lobsters, donkeys and flamingos. For the holidays, a new model has been added--reindeers.
"They're really hot," says Don Smith, co-owner of Aztec Express, a Costa Mesa firm that manufactures wooden and iron furniture and accessories. "They catch people's eyes, and made them smile." The mailboxes, designed by Ray Rogers of Newport Beach, retail for about $79 each.
While the line is growing, Smith says his company also can produce customized mailboxes. Recently, his firm made a mailbox that looks like an airplane for one of his clients. For another--the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa--he devised boxes to look like, well, red lions.
These boxes, Smith says, can be used indoors as well as outdoors.
"They can double as toy chests, bread boxes or even suggestion boxes," Smith says. "They make great gifts."
The current trend, according to those in the field, is toward the more expensive, high-end mailboxes.
"They're finally catching on," says Neal Singleton, owner of Okell's Fireplace and Barbecues in Hermosa Beach. "When people spend half-a-million dollars on a house, the last thing they want is a rusty mailbox out front.
"People are realizing that they can spend a little amount and get a great return," he continues. "For $40 or $50, a good mailbox can improve the appearance of a house. That's pretty cheap, considering what it costs to remodel kitchens or bathrooms, or add fireplaces and things like that."
Singleton first began stocking mailboxes in his specialty store about 20 years ago. It wasn't until about five years ago, though, that he decided to dramatically increase his selection. He was looking for a mailbox for his own home in Torrance when he realized just how difficult it was to find an adequate selection. Okell's now offers 40 to 50 different styles, with prices designed to fit most budgets. The better boxes, Singleton says, range from $40 to $200.
What are the most popular mailboxes?
Contemporary designs made of weather-resistant materials are in demand, according to Singleton. Mailboxes made of stainless steel, copper, aluminum, plastic and some woods that don't deteriorate easily are particularly sought after, especially by those who live in beach communities.
Singleton says he has traveled across the country, attending up to five trade shows annually, to find interesting mailboxes. Among the most unusual:
A mailbox made of solid brass and shaped like a saddlebag.
A copper mailbox with bird designs embossed on it.
A wooden mailbox shaped like a Cape Cod cottage.
A contemporary aluminum tube-shaped mailbox with a stainless-steel door.
Mailboxes are strictly regulated. According to Jose Holper, general supervisor of delivery and collection for the Newport Beach Post Office, all mailboxes must be approved by the Postmaster General.
He has seen his share of unusual mailboxes.
"My favorite is in Harbor Ridge," he says. "There's a mailbox that's a replica of the house it belongs to. The box is painted the same color, just like the house. The box's roof is on hinges, and that's where the mail is dropped.
"Newport Beach is different from a lot of areas," Holper continues. "Residents are generally affluent, and they probably get every conceivable magazine there is. Therefore, they need a larger receptacle to accommodate a greater volume of mail.
"Right now, we're seeing a lot of large, custom boxes that can be locked by their owners. Mailboxes that can be protected against tampering are becoming more desirable."
Singleton agrees. His store has been selling an increasing number of tamper-proof boxes.
"More people are traveling, and they want to be able to go on a trip and secure their mailboxes," he says. "There's also a lot more junk mail delivered today, and larger-capacity boxes are desirable to handle volume."
Singleton himself is handling volume. His company has been contracted to supply mailboxes for an entire tract development in Riverside County.
According to postal official Holper, new housing developments are combining mail operations to central pickup and delivery points. Many planned communities now have curbside posts built between property lines, with two to four mailboxes attached to them. Other developments have NDCUs--neighborhood delivery and collection units--Holper says. These common posts feature a cluster of as many as 16 separately locking boxes, similar to those standard in apartment buildings.
This growing method of delivery enables mail carriers to make fewer stops. Consequently, mail service becomes less costly. At least, that's the theory.
"The day of the mailman delivering to the front door is on its way out," Holper says.
In the meantime, designer mailboxes continue to post gains.
"We've definitely had an increase in sales," Singleton says. "It seems the more kinds of mailboxes we carry, the more we sell."