America's quirky mailboxes range from giant wine bottles to pink flamingos

January 02, 1995|By Donna Horowitz | Donna Horowitz,San Francisco Examiner

On a whim five years ago, Rachel Epstein took a photo of a mailbox with wings and propellers.

She says the mailbox, resembling an airplane, looked as if it were going to take off. It didn't, but her new-found interest in unusual mailboxes did.

She began scouring back roads to photograph mailboxes that caught her fancy.

She spent vacations scouting for ever more interesting quarry, traveling through nine states and compiling more than 100 photos of mailboxes.

In May, she quit her job as a quality coordinator for a digital imaging company in San Francisco and has begun working full time on a book.

Now she plans to publish the book of her mailbox photos to coincide with the 1996 centennial of Rural Free Delivery -- aided by tips from postal carriers coast to coast.

"It's a discovery," she said. "I'll be going somewhere. I'll find a mailbox. The next thing you know, I'll be sitting in someone's kitchen hearing their life's story. . . . I realized the stories behind the boxes were as interesting as the mailboxes themselves."

One of her subjects is a pink flamingo mailbox created by Lee Greenberg, a sculptor working out of a Greenbrae, Calif., studio.

Three years ago, he made a flamingo mailbox whose head and neck flop around in the wind -- and when his carrier, Albert, opened the box, a piece of metal would flip up and greet him with the words: "Hi Albert."

Mr. Greenberg attached green re-bar legs, bent as the bird's would be, and planted his creation in a concrete stand to prevent vandalism.

Ms. Epstein also plans to feature Ralph Ables' 5-foot-tall tin man in her book.

Mr. Ables, who lives in Fairfield, Calif., says he created the tin man 12 years ago in honor of his job as a sheet-metal worker, and filled it with concrete because kids kept knocking it down with their trucks. Once, they even lassoed it.

Vandalism is the bane of the unique mailbox's existence. Ms. Epstein says many have short lives.

"They get hit with baseball bats. They get pumpkins thrown at them. They get blown up," she says.

In her travels, Ms. Epstein has come across many other unusual mailboxes: a replica of a three-story, post-modern house complete with a sunken hot tub and lighting; a lighthouse with a blinking light; a figure of a 19th-century Italian mail carrier with mailbag and horn sitting atop a wine keg; a Mickey Mouse figure holding a letter; a wine bottle with a corkscrew in it and a 5-foot-tall milk carton.

Where to find the largest number of unusual mailboxes?

Florida.

"I would have thought it would have been California because we have so many creative and eccentric people here," Ms. Epstein says.

Jim Bruns, director of the postal museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., who has written an introduction for Ms. Epstein's book, says "what I like about Rachel's work is, she's showing we're a creative country."

Rural Free Delivery started in 1896 -- before that, Mr. Bruns says, farmers and other rural residents went to post offices to pick up mail. Roadside mail delivery was an important "gateway to the outside world" for isolated farmers.

"I think what Rachel is doing is legitimizing and validating mailbox art as a legitimate American folk art," says Dan DeMiglio, spokesman for the postal service in Northern California. . . . I think she's memorializing America's love affair with the mail."

Ms. Epstein asks people who know of unusual hand-made or hand-altered mailboxes to send snapshots of them and locations to P.O. Box 513, Mill Valley, Calif., 94942.

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