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Following Postal Rules to the Letter

Sure, you can mail your true love a partridge for her pear tree--as long as it's sent by express mail in a biologically secure container.


Rain? Sleet? Gloom of night? None of them really compare with those interminable post office lines this time of year. But before you take it out on that clerk behind the counter, you should know that he has at his disposal an arcane reserve of knowledge that could enable him to declare your package "unmailable."

It's called the Domestic Mail Manual (DMM), and you don't want to make him get out this book. Not only does it contain rules you never knew existed, but a point-by-point review of its bizarre cargo of regulations could keep you both busy long into the new year.

Brown paper packages tied up with string? Not one of the U.S. Postal Service's favorite things, according to David Mazer, manager of public affairs and communications for the USPS in Los Angeles. "I've been here for 20 years," he said, "and no matter what we say, we'll still see this every Christmas." The USPS, he said, regards paper and string as just another way to snarl its machines. The manual declares anything tied with string unmailable and takes a dim view of wrapping paper not tightly secured.

"It's not like you're ever going to bump into anyone out on the street who's seen a copy of this book," Mazer said, "but for the sales associates behind the counter, this is the Bible."

He hauled out a fat three-ring binder stuffed with 500 or so pages of regulations issued every year or so, and flipped through a few pages. "I can't honestly say every clerk out there knows every page of this book, but they'll generally know if a package meets the standards."

So what does a DMM-compliant package look like? For starters, it's taped shut, and certainly not with that cellophane or masking tape you might be considering. That stuff's "only to be used to augment adhesive closures on envelopes or to cover staples on bags." You'll need bona fide shipping tape, and what's more, it had better extend at least 3 inches over each adjoining side of the box in strips no less than 2 inches wide, unless, of course, it's "pressure-sensitive filament tape," which can be narrower.

The stickling does not stop there.

If you were thinking of constructing your own box from scrap cardboard, don't be too quick on the draw with the old glue gun. The DMM has very explicit guidelines for that, worth reading for their Byzantine style:

Hot-melt adhesive may be used if at least four strips are applied on each part of the box flap where the outer flap overlays the inner flap; each strip is 3/16 inch wide after compression; the strips are not more than 1 1/2 inches apart, with the first strip no more than 1/2 inch from the center seam; and all strips are the full width of the inner flap, unless hot-melt adhesive is applied to 25% of the area where the outer flap lies over the inner flap.


Even if you manage to seal up your parcel without breaking a single USPS regulation, there's still the potential for labeling blunders.

Did you write "do not bend" on a flat package? It is strictly verboten to use this phrase unless you've reinforced the contents.

You may consider it a personal choice whether your mailables are left to bend or rattle to pieces, but broken goods can injure postal employees or damage other mail, so the DMM insists you make sufficient use of wadded paper, excelsior, plastic peanuts or "rubberized hair." (The latter slightly creepy element happens to be horse, cattle or hog hair bonded with latex and also used as padding for carpet or upholstery.)

Exactly what you can and cannot send through the mail is even more rigorously controlled. For instance, that platinum cigarette lighter you bought for your brother-in-law falls under the category of "explosives, flammable material, infernal machines." "Infernal machines" may never travel by air, only by surface. So what about that infernally yacking mounted fish novelty you bought for your uncle? It can travel by air, but you must pull the batteries before mailing to prevent it from accidentally activating and annoying postal employees from here to Peoria.

"Something like that," said Mazer, "might seem like a lighthearted matter, but every once in a while you'll have a clock or toy ticking in a package that will clear out an entire post office."

What's just as surprising as what you can't send sometimes, said Mazer, is what you can. "Tires, for instance; all they need is a label that's firmly affixed, and they're good to go."

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