Those blue boxes all over the place, I always wondered what they were for


I was at the post office waiting my turn at the kiosk. The group in front of me consisted of three teenage girls. After purchasing their postage and affixing it to their letter, they looked around, confused.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"What do I do now?" ask the girl holding the letter.

"Um, you put it in a post box," I answered.

The girls looked around.

"Where's a post box?"

You might recall that we are standing in the post office.

I point out a few.

"Oh, the blue things," she said, as if she had seen those blue things all over the place but had not until now realized what they were for.

I'm old.

The world's first adhesive postage stamp was issued on this date in 1840.

Comments (47)
  1. pc says:

    Really, the entire system of postal mail is not very discoverable. There’s no good way to know one’s full standard postal address by yourself. All the details of how to address and stamp a letter is convention that one just has to “know” and needs to get taught at some point. Even the USPS web site doesn’t have a great “here’s how to mail a letter” guide visible within a few clicks of the home page that I could find, especially as they’re so much more focused on packages. (And I can’t really blame them, as individuals mailing individual letters are a tiny part of their business at this point.)

    But yes, it’s likely the first time those teenagers ever mailed letters themselves. Those mailboxes are about as obsolete as phone booths.

    1. The MAZZTer says:

      I occasionally like to look at systems like that with the eye of a computer programmer.

      Phone numbers are horrible when you think about it. The system grew organically and it was quite reasonable at the time with the level of technology we had for routing calls, but nowadays it’s just a mess of complicated number rules and (in the US at least) recording and looking up a number from 7 to 10 digits to call anyone with. Of course, we’re stuck with the system, unlike with software where you can gradually migrate to a newer system. Cell phones largely try to hide these numbers from you any way they can, replacing them with the name of the person you’re talking to.

      1. prshaw says:

        You are saying that email is/can migrate to a newer system?

        1. Muzer says:

          It migrated from uuencode to MIME, it can migrate again if big players (read: Microsoft Outlook and a couple of the popular open-source implementations) work hard enough.

          1. Yuri Khan says:

            I would be very happy if email migrated from HTML to Markdown.

    2. morlamweb says:

      If you get any physical mail, then you should have plenty of examples of standard address formats, and the expected locations of the addressee/return address/stamp elements. You’ve also got an example of your own address right there (why would you need a reminder of your own address?).

      1. pc says:

        I was more thinking that when moving to a new location, it can in some cases not be obvious what the address you’re supposed to use for others to mail you.

        And most mail one receives doesn’t have a stamp on it.

        1. Darran Rowe says:

          I’m wondering what the problem is here.
          But then again, I’m used to a postal system that allows you to successfully send post to an address using just the house number and postal code, the rest of the address isn’t really needed. I am also used to a postal system that also checks things, so if the address is wrong, then they will use something else to try and help identify where it is going. This happened recently for me, I had a letter where the address was wrong, and the incorrect part of the address was crossed out and next to it on the envelope a corrected address was written.

          1. Devin says:

            I’m used to a postal system that brings me mail for every person who’s ever lived at my current address, except for stuff that’s addressed to me, which they route to Kazakhstan. When a package does make it through, the carrier hands it directly to the dog.

          2. Darran Rowe says:

            @Devin:
            Well obviously I’m glossing over some of the more fun things. Like I am also used delivery failures and stupidity. But hey, when they deliver it to the dog, at least they got it to the right property.

          3. GregM says:

            Lucky. My town has 3 post offices, each with its own zip code. If you put the wrong zip code on something and send it to me, the post office will, if you’re lucky, put the correct zip code on it, and SEND IT BACK TO YOU. If you’re unlucky, they’ll stick a “no such address” label on it and again SEND IT BACK TO YOU.

            We have fewer than 6000 households in our town.

            Fortunately for the people in the the other zip codes, the post office that serves my house will correct the address and then send the mail along to the proper post office for it to be delivered.

          4. Kevin says:

            A non-USPS carrier once put a notice on my door informing me that I had given the sender the wrong address and would I please contact them to get it corrected.

            They delivered the notice to the correct address.

        2. morlamweb says:

          OK, suppose that a person is moving to new living quarters. How would they not know the address of their new home? They need the address to find it in the first place, and the address is typically stated multiple times in the lease paperwork (or the mountains of paper involved in buying a home).

          Standard letter-sized envelopes – even junk mail – do still need a stamp in order to be delivered.

          1. pc says:

            The legal address (describing a way to find a physical location and what municipality has jurisdiction over it) is not always the same as the mailing address (describing what postal route to use and what post office is responsible for it). The mailing address of my parent’s house (which they’ve lived in since a few years before I was born) has changed 4 or 5 times, though the house hasn’t moved, and neither the number of the house nor the street name have changed. The last line of the address, including a locality and ZIP code, is used for routing mail; they aren’t directly mapped onto municipal boundaries.

            Related: http://www.mjt.me.uk/posts/falsehoods-programmers-believe-about-addresses/

          2. morlamweb says:

            @pc: what system are you describing? The postal system that I know of is where you have one address: you use it to find the location and as your physical mail address. Street name changes are possible, but rare, and the post office handles redirection of the mail for residents of the affected streets.

          3. John says:

            @pc

            That linked article mentions Norman Diamond, now there is a name I have not heard in a long time (he was a long time reader/comment poster on this blog

        3. cheong00 says:

          In Hong Kong, there are some house that have no plain addresses (those house build at the midway of hills but is not part of village, or boat house which does not park at proper sea dock).

          To have physical mail reach these places, you have to write down the district, and then include the nearest buoy number / water-pipe number / street lamp number / electric transmission tower number as address, and the postman in post office does amazing job to send the post items to these areas correctly for you.

      2. ender9 says:

        Speaking of address formats, it always annoys me when web forms have a state field that must not be empty. There’s no such thing here (then there’s a special place in hell for those designers that not only make the state field mandatory, but also disallow – or — in it).

    3. BZ says:

      I decided to google “how to mail a letter” and sure enough, here’s the first hit (who even cares what USPS’s website is these days anyway):
      http://www.wikihow.com/Mail-a-Letter
      Now I do feel old.

      Note that it doesn’t tell you how to determine your own address, but that is something that you really do need to know for many reasons even these days, like ordering stuff online, paying bills, getting a driver’s license. Of course, if you’re a teenager, you might not do any of those things yet.

      1. Dave says:

        Determining your own address is simple, you post out a DHCP letter and within a few days a DHCP ACK response from the post office will arrive addressed to you. You can then determine your address from that.

      2. GP.Burth says:

        Unfortunately the linked howto is wrong in quite a big part of the world. The correct way of addressing where I live is not front middle but lower right corner of the front, and the recipients address should not be more than one line to be more legible but is has so that it arrives at all, the senders address is/was at the top back of the envelope, etc. Oh, and post boxes are yellow :-)

        1. ender9 says:

          It’s similar here – recipient’s address in lower-right, sender’s either in top-left (may be crossed over), or in the top-center on the back, in one line. Post boxes are yellow.

    4. Dave says:

      There’s also the format. In virtually every country I’ve been to (except the US), a post box is an oversized letterbox, there’s a slot in there for mail and some sort of post logo on it. If you can identify a letterbox you can generally identify a post box. However, those things Raymond has linked to look like some sort of garbage-disposal stations to me, if it wasn’t for the USPS logo on the side I’d say they were recycling bins or garbage disposal. The closest visual match for them is for a pest-proof rubbish bin, maybe not quite bear-proof like this one http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-bear-proof-rubbish-refuse-bins-within-the-grand-tetons-national-park-69217322.html but visually quite close.

    5. cheong00 says:

      Not sure about the other places, but at where I live, people get a dedicated lesson on how to post a letter in primary school (I think it’s P3 curriculum)

      1. ender9 says:

        We had that, but it was nearly 30 years ago, so I have no idea if they still do it.

    6. BC says:

      In the past, your family would clue you in on life lessons like ‘mailing a letter’.

      So apparently the girls had no parents or something.

    7. John Styles says:

      Funnily enough I had a colleague from another country asking where he could mail a letter – I pointed out the slot he could put them in but said look for the red boxes with slots in. He had assumed that since the phone boxes were obsolete (the red ones are often kept because they look picturesque but without phones in – sometimes with AEDs in instead now) that the post boxes were too.

  2. Ian Yates says:

    By writing here I assume I am on your lawn. It’s nice and I won’t get off it.

  3. Mike Shawaluk says:

    The short blue boxes are probably mailboxes. The taller ones are probably discarded time machines.

  4. Gavin Greig says:

    Clearly the problem is that they’re the wrong colour. Proper post boxes are red.

    1. Dave says:

      And date back to the reign of Queen Victoria, if your photographic example is typical.

  5. Wear says:

    I like it when you are watching a TV show set in a US city and they have big red mail boxes.

    1. pc says:

      Well, they have been known to change the look of the boxes for special events…

      https://postalmuseum.si.edu/collections/object-spotlight/r2d2.html

  6. Is “post box” a regional thing? That term would confuse me, too. I’ve always heard “mail box.”And if you really want to feel old, watch some “Kids React” videos where they look at old technology like audio cassettes.

    1. GL says:

      “Mail box” sounds like the box that stands around your house or that is fixed on the ground floor of the building, to which the mail sent to the tenant is delivered. (Or “inbox”.)

      1. Brian says:

        I’ve lived in both the US and Canada. I’ve always called the red (Canada) or blue (US) boxes you find on the street “mailboxes”. Of course, that much smaller box that I look in to get my physical junk mail each day is also called a mailbox. Context determines the meaning.
        During the 30+ years I’d spent in Canada before moving to the US, there’d always been a (red) mailbox within a few blocks walk of wherever I’d lived (city and suburbs). When I moved to the US (very inner suburb), I was surprised that I couldn’t find any (blue) mailboxes near my house. After few trips to the local post office to mail letters, I finally asked a neighbor “how do you mail a letter here”. I got a strange look and an explanation that you just put the outgoing mail in your (small, house-specific) mailbox and the postal carrier picks it up and carries it away.
        Figuring out my Zip+4 postal code was also an interesting experience (the easiest way, by the way, is to wait till something shows up from some organization that does postal address correction and correctly appends those last 4 digits).

        1. BZ says:

          Why do you need to know Zip+4? Also, I’ve received mail with three different Zip+4 codes from various places, plus “0000”.

        2. DWalker07 says:

          The EASIEST way to find out your own Zip+4 code is to go to usps.com, select Mail & Ship, then select Look Up a Zip code. Enter your address. You’ll get the standardized address including the Zip+4.

    2. JanH says:

      I remember Bill Bryson remarking in one of his stories how in the UK, the Royal Mail delivers the post, while in the US, the Postal Service delivers the mail.

  7. Adrian says:

    In March, I sent all my tax info to my CPA whose office is in another city about 75 miles from mine. I used an interactive kiosk that could weigh the package, generate postage labels, etc.

    Due to a bug in the software, the kiosk never asked for the destination address (other than the ZIP code). I didn’t think this was a problem, since the destination address was pre-printed on the envelope and the kiosk showed an animation of precisely where to place the labels onto the envelope to ensure that the destination address was not obscured.

    It turns out that the tracking label barcode encodes the destination address, and, since the kiosk didn’t know the destination address, it used a default one. The postal system ignored the printed address and routed the package according to the tracking barcode.

    And that’s how my financial information ended up on the opposite edge of the country, at the headquarters of the kiosk manufacturer.

    1. Brian says:

      The way those kiosks work for me (in the US), is that they ask for a zip code, then the street number, then the first letter of the name of the street (though it’s not clear that it’s just the first letter). Then, with that information, they suggest matching addresses. It’s a very odd way of entering an address (though it is pretty quick after you suspend your disbelief that someone that that a system like that would make sense to a user).
      What would be nice is if they then offered a touch keyboard to enter the first line of the address. They print out the address, a zip code and a routing bar-code. You have to write out the name “line” of the address by hand (which means that you need to remember to bring a pen to the post office).

      1. Devin says:

        I believe the reason for starting with the zip code is that even though by convention addresses are written street number => street => city => state => zip, they are processed in the opposite order, and state isn’t really necessary if you have the zip.

    2. Dave says:

      Here you just enter the city, used to determine the postage amount. The rest is scanned off the address you’ve written on the package. Letters are all flat-rate, so you just stick a “letter” stamp on it and you’re done.

  8. Ivan K says:

    I collected stamps for a while as a child and I remember seeing stamps with just a picture of the queen but no country designation. Based on the picture and currency symbol I was pretty sure it was the UK, but I learned that day that the UK was the first country to issue postage stamps. Very empirical.

  9. GWO says:

    A little off topic, but on the subject of addressing mail – there’s a website called what3words that attempts to uniquely identify every location on Earth (or at least every 3m x 3m square on Earth) with a unique three-word address. It’s a really neat idea.

    1. Dave says:

      I tried that, and it gave my location in NYC as skull-and-crossbones, star-of-david, thumbsup. Seemed a bit suspicious to me…

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