Of mail robbers, marines and babies who travel as parcels. Part 1. - Istillwritecards

July 16, 2017

Of mail robbers, marines and babies who travel as parcels.

(Part 1 of 2)

About an epoch when people entrusted their kids to the postal service and they treasured letters and cards so much that they risked their lives to protect them. An animated short story based on true events.

Who am I and what am I doing here?
Ah, the confused look of a small child! Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Maybe you, dear reader, have a similarly puzzled expression on your face right now. But do not worry, everything will make sense soon...
(Image: Detail of 'Uniformed Letter Carrier with Child in Mailbag' by Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain.)

Note: All videos in this post can be paused.

Postcard stories

Postcards often carry affectionate greetings. But they can also be used to tell little stories - sometimes the writer wants to narrate an adventure she had; other times she writes a tender love-card to paint a picture of her relationship with the receiver and the wonderful future that is in store for both of them. In our blog, we wish to celebrate this story-telling side of the postcard as well. Because the postcard has itself seen a lot and it can spin a good tale too. It leads an eventful life, moving from one place to the next. Some of these paths are quite perilous. The following text takes us back to such a wild era. So, without further ado, let us dive right into a true fairy tale:

Once upon a time...

What image appears in your mind when you think of an American mailman in the early 20th century? Surely you envision this: a man with well-rounded curves, wearing a bowler hat, riding around in a horse-drawn carriage with his canine confidant on the passenger seat. They are galloping from mailbox to mailbox, distributing letters with the accuracy of a professional Frisbee thrower.

Oh dear, if this was indeed your first thought, you obviously already know a lot about the history of the postal system - I sure hope the rest of this blog entry won't bore you...Anyhow, your perceptive imagination is spot on:


What looks like semolina porridge sprinkled with cinnamon or a morning bowl of oat bran because of its coarse texture, is a scene from the silent film 'The Hayseed', published by Paramount Pictures in 1919. The actors have names like 'Fatty' Arbuckle and 'Buster' Keaton (monikers that are generally unthinkable today). If you give credence to this movie, the life of a postman shortly after 1900 seems to have been relatively idyllic. Motorized traffic was modest, one didn't have to schlep packages from Amazon or Zalando every day, and when a delivery was too big for the slot of a mailbox, one knew how to deal with it:


Easy-breezy! Back then mail was transported across the country via railway and the traveling employees simply threw bags with postal items off the moving train at marked locations and grabbed a pouch with fresh letters on the fly:



But stop! I promised to stick to historical facts. The life of a mail clerk wasn't quite as cushy as I made it look. For the sake of efficiency, mail was also sorted under time pressure in the moving train. And the rampant popularity of postal communication piqued the interest of those who were not meant as the respective receivers:

Mail robbers were lonely individuals without friends who sent them letters or cards. So they banded together in gangs to intercept other people's correspondence and formed reading groups to find solace through the writings of strangers. Either that, or they were after the money and bonds transferred through the postal system - I know which story I prefer, but make up your own mind, dear reader.

Certainly the monetary allure was also big - after all, the businessman W. H. Coltharp sent a whole bank by mail. (If I absolutely must be be more precise: He needed 40 tons of bricks for the erection of a bank building. Since this was cheaper than shipping them by wagon freight, he had the construction material delivered in many small packages - the weight limit for one package was 50 pound. The regional parcel post service was overwhelmed and, although they ultimately transported the full 40 tons, this incident lead to the introduction of a new limit for the amount a customer could send or receive per day. Officials also thought it necessary to publicly state that "it is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail.")

In any case, mail robbery was booming in the U.S.A. around 1920. In those black and white days many a rogue would lurk in the grainy twilight, on the prowl for a beautifully written postcard or valuable papers. And if the ruffians were especially lucky, they could bring home a new family member, for back then even children were being sent via postal service:

Baby, baby, baby on board!

Okay, to remain truthful: Shipping one's kids as packages wasn't a widespread custom. But several documented cases actually exist. Already in January 1913, a few weeks after parcel post was introduced to the American public, the parents of the eight-month-old James Beagle sent their "wrapped" son to his grandmother for 15 cents. (The “parcel” was insured for $50.) This first known case is mentioned in the following headline of an old newspaper:

Baby by parcel post.Image: Smithsonian Magazine. Public Domain.

As the teaser of an article reporting a separate occurrence highlights, the legality of this traveling method was of course contested:

Parcel Post Baby Makes A Trip.Image: Smithsonian Magazine. Public Domain.

Still, this account too relays the successful delivery of the three-year-old Maude Smith. During her trip, the girl reportedly sat between the knees of the mail carrier on a pack of mail sacks and was busily eating away at some candy and a red apple. When curious observers waved at her, she smiled. She wore a pink dress to which was sewed a shipping tag, covered with stamps and an address. "Baby received by postmaster in person", read a notation.

Parents considered shipping small children mainly for two reasons: One, the chance to send one's children to relatives under the supervision of an adult, without having to join them on the journey. Or, two, simply the opportunity to save money. The low-cost postage was presumably the decisive factor for the adventure of five-year-old May Pierstorff, which acquainted many Americans with a new concept because it was covered in the media and which was eventually immortalized in the children's book Mailing May. As a ticket for the train was too expensive, her parents made the argument that parcels up to 50 pound were allowed and no rule explicitly forbade the delivery of humans. Convinced by this flawless logic, the railway postal service transported the girl to her grandparents, who were already eagerly waiting for their granddaughter to join them for lunch.

The whole topic obviously sounds a bit odd at first, but in the end it shows how much people trusted mail clerks back then. For some remote farms they were the only regular visitors and often also helped in emergency situations; according to the Smithsonian Magazine they even sometimes - thematically fitting - delivered babies (in the biological sense). The opinion of postal driver W. E. Fawcett, who transported a weighed and stamped seven-year-old and an eight-year-old girl, is quoted in the Springfield Missouri Republican of September 3rd, 1918, as follows: "Mr. Fawcett believes that a kid or two at a time to deliver is all right but he is glad the idea does not occur to many parents at present when moving their children and he is dreading the time when he will find children all along the way and persons in parcels at every post office."

To prevent such a scenario, First Assistant Postmaster General Koons finally clarified in 1920 that children "did not come within the classification of harmless live animals which do not require food or water while in transit" and shipping them was banned for good. This decision also ended the inquiries of overprotective parents wanting to find out how to correctly wrap their offspring so a safe delivery would be guaranteed. The photo above is, by the way, a staged parody by contemporaries who saw the absurdity of the debate.

But back to the mail robbers, who...

- End Part 1 of 2. To proceed to Part 2, please click here. -

David Weger

Leave a comment

Also in For lovers of pen and paper

Of mail robbers, marines and babies who travel as parcels. Part 2 of 2.

August 26, 2017

A baby is sitting in a mailbag and waiting to begin the journey of its life.
An animated short story based on true events. Part 2: Mail robbers and Marines.

Continue Reading

Digital natives yearn for an analog life. Part 3 of 3.

May 25, 2017

Su Blackwell's book sculpture titled 'Once Upon a Time, 2016'.
The story of a mediacultural renaissance: On the disappearance of things and their return. Part 3: The not-so-serious duel between postcard and e-mail.

Continue Reading

Digital natives yearn for an analog life. Part 2 of 3.

April 23, 2017

Sing with me: "All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey...". Oh, wait! :)
The story of a mediacultural renaissance: On the disappearance of things and their return.

Continue Reading