Rise of online communication means decline of mailbox

October 13, 2006|By Richard Clough | Richard Clough,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Like the phone booth before it, the blue street-corner mailbox is rapidly becoming a casualty of the digital age.

As more people send e-mails and pay bills online, the decline in first-class mail is forcing the U.S. Postal Service to remove tens of thousands of underused mailboxes from city streets.

"People just don't write letters as often anymore," said Yvonne Yoerger, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service. "It's not a part of our culture anymore."

The removal of mailboxes, though, represents more than just a transition to the Internet age. To many, it means the decline of an American icon.

Seen and used by hundreds of millions of Americans for more than a century, the corner mailbox is one of the most recognized pieces of Americana, said Nancy Pope, a historian at the National Postal Museum in Washington.

"You recognize them in Chicago, you recognize them in D.C., you recognize them in Florida, you recognize them in Montana," Pope said. "It's a piece of American iconography that has a wonderful history behind it."

Initially small, green and attached to lampposts, mailboxes, which first appeared in America in the middle of the 19th century, were periodically redesigned until one model stuck. The rounded-top blue design has been the standard for mailboxes since 1971, when the Postal Reorganization Act took effect and overhauled the country's mail delivery sector. Over the past 35 years, that design has become "imprinted in our brains," Pope said.

The Postal Service owns a copyright on the box design.

Pope said producers of plays, television programs and films have solicited her help because when you want to create an outdoor scene that is distinctly American, "you put in a mailman, you put in a mailbox."

The National Postal Museum has two of the modern blue mailboxes in its collection; one is on display as part of a contemporary scene, which might become a scene of the past as the corner boxes become scarce.

Since 1999, the Postal Service has removed more than 42,000 collection boxes. As of last year, about 295,000 mailboxes remained in use.

Along with mailboxes, the Postal Service is facing a drop in jobs. In the past five years, it has reduced staff through attrition by more than 80,000 employees. The current postal work force stands at about 700,000.

The Postal Service's 2007 budget accounts for an expected reduction of about 3 billion pieces of first-class mail from 2006 levels. Last year, about 98 billion pieces of first-class mail were delivered.

The decline in mailboxes is not just because of decreases in first-class mail. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Postal Service, working with the Homeland Security Department, removed about 7,000 mailboxes around the country for security reasons. Among the cities that cut back were New York, which took out about 100 boxes near churches and mosques, and Chicago, which removed almost 200 boxes, mostly around the Sears Tower.

But disuse is the primary reason for box removal. Local post office branches conduct quarterly surveys of mailbox use, removing those that collect fewer than 25 pieces of mail per day. Citizens in communities across the country have circulated petitions to save mailboxes, and postal officials say they take such campaigns seriously.

Before any box is uprooted, officials will post a 30-day public notice on the mailbox, informing users of the nearest alternative drop points. And once a box is removed, some post offices will consider returning it if there is significant public outcry.

The post office tries to leave at least one mailbox per square mile in residential areas.

But while the post office is facing declines in several major areas, the news is not all bad.

"At the same time the Internet has led to a decline in first-class mail, it has also led to an increase in package services mail because of the trend of people using the Internet to do shopping and ordering products," Yoerger, the Postal Service spokeswoman, said.

In a speech last month, Postmaster General John Potter addressed recent post office cutbacks, but cited Internet retailer eBay and online DVD rental service Netflix as boons to the mail industry.

Potter said "we are only beginning to fully comprehend the power" of the Internet for the Postal Service.

Richard Clough writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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