PHILADELPHIA -- These days, postal workers never know what they'll find when they open mail-collection boxes across the Philadelphia area.
There's the usual assortment of letters and packages, but there are also purses and wallets, 75 to 150 of them every day.
Workers are also finding cats and birds, dead and alive, as well as guns, knives and food -- even beehives in the warmer months.
Other items: a jar of peanut butter concealing a handgun, a frying pan with cooked eggs, and a traffic ticket wrapped around a jar of pennies, presumably to pay the fine.
Margaret King, a postal spokeswoman, said one man who had too many drinks apparently mistook the mailbox for an ATM machine and deposited his card and cash.
"He realized the next morning what he had done," Ms. King said, "and we returned everything to him."
Most of the purses and wallets have been stolen; some have been lost. And nearly all are missing cash and credit cards.
They're "mailed" at 5,100 city and suburban mailboxes.
Saturdays and Sundays are the biggest days for purses and wallets, "because people steal a lot over the weekend," said William K. Hall, a postal superintendent.
He said a thief usually takes the credit cards and money and then puts the wallet or purse in a box, along with driver's licenses, identification cards and items that may have value only to the victim.
"Maybe he has a conscience," Mr.Hall said.
The articles are packaged and sent to branch offices for delivery.
"If we get a purse or wallet, we look through it for an address," Mr. Hall said.
"If there is one, we'll send it to the person who lost it and try to collect the postage on it."
"Back in the '70s, I think we had fewer thefts . . . probably less than 75 a day," said Mr. Hall. "But times are different now; there are more people who are desperate . . . people on drugs."
Letter carriers find the articles amid the piles of mail. About 20 to 30 hotel and motel keys also are found every day.
Purses and wallets containing no identification are sent to the claims and inquiry department.
There, workers try to piece together clues that might lead them to the owners.
Any lost or stolen items of value that cannot be returned after two weeks are turned over to charities.
Last year claims-department workers also recovered $140,000 in cash that was mailed but not properly addressed or that spilled from damaged envelopes. Eighty-five percent of the money was returned to the owners. The rest was placed in an account to pay insurance claims for damaged parcels.
House and car keys that are found are kept for 90 days.
As for the animals, they present no problem, postal officials say. If they're alive, they flee.
"We get everything in our mail-collection boxes," said Ms. King. "We just want to make sure it gets to the right people."