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One day I left the world and drove off into the wilderness. I was on my own Walden Pond quest and had come to live in the rural Southern Tier of New York State. As I traveled around these country roads to explore my local environment, I noticed mailboxes along the roadside. Though, most are your standard USPS approved tunnel shaped designs or the ugly green plastic molded Rubbermaid models, there are still a few mailboxes out there that have caught my eye. Whether because of their designs, creative variations or craftsmanship, these assemblages have made me stop by the side of the road and take a picture of them. Its been something to ponder while driving to reflect if they are a piece of sculptural art, sitting on top of a pedestal (their wooden post) or a form of idiosyncratic expression, fashioned for the world to witness.

No matter how far or fast we dive into the information age, we will always have regular mail. Though, we may all be carrying around smart phones or whatever the new communication gadget is out there, we still greatly rely upon the mail or as it is affectionately has become to be known as, “snail mail”. Even with our mailboxes overflowing with junk mail, bills and tax forms, there is still the occasion that we get something that makes us feel good when we go through the pile. A birthday card, a magazine, or pictures from a family event, these hard, tangible documents are coveted. Though most of us get our mail slipped through a slot in the front door of our homes, actual mailboxes still exist. Out there, in the rural countryside, along country roads and the byways of America.

Are these creations a utilitarian object or some form of folk art? They are certainly indigenous to a particular region, that being the rural countryside. And they present some type of decorative skills by their makers. Somehow they offer a carryover of a type of object that could be considered from colonial times in that they combine a sense of charm and practical craftsmanship. Intrinsically what I see in them is a naive sense of design and an outgoing desire to create an object that expresses individualism and creativity.

What I enjoy most in accumulating these images is the hunt. It starts by looking at a detailed Gazetteer map, one that shows the small county routes and back-roads. I know I will have to stray far off the beaten path for these adventures. I give myself a destination for the day and use a highlighter marker to provide an approximate route. No mapquest.com here. It only presents the fastest way to get someplace and surely keeps you on the highway as much as possible. I find the main road for my travels and then backtrack to determine what would be the most circuitous route to take. With these mailboxes located in rural enclaves, I look for the smallest town as a starting point, but understand that the mailboxes are not located in these towns, since townies get mail deliveries to their front door, but rather on the outskirts of these hamlets. Farmhouse, country cottages, bungalows are my jackpots. County roads, rural highways and seasonal dirt trails are the paths I seek. If I’m on a road that has a sign posted for 55 miles per hour, it’s too big and I’m going to fast. 30-40 MPH is tops for me. It’s what’s required to stumble upon these gems. Note: I’ve noticed that by slowing down your car speed, it also allows you to slow down your life speed.

I’ve learned to keep one eye on the road and the other eye on the side of road, while all the time watching out for road kill. And, you definitely need a pickup truck to do this. An important criteria is that you need to blend into your environment to stalk these feral mailboxes in their natural habitat and sometimes the road you’re on is not paved.

Interestingly, these unique mailboxes tend to associate in clusters. Maybe it’s a keeping up with the Jones type of thing, but if I see one, there’s a good chance around the next bend of the road will be another. I’ve also noticed trends in my discoveries. Whereas, the older mailboxes tend to be grouped in categories, such as, farm animals/equipment and images to promote a particular work/trade, newer themes have emerged in what could be classified as patriotic and NASCAR topics. Sometimes combinations occur, like a racecar with an American flag hanging off the side. The main thing to remember is that getting lost is not a bad thing. I know some of these mailboxes were not made by the owners and look like they were bought at a gift shop for tourists and some are even molded plastic that were mass-produced, but they are all meant to say hello to passer-bys and express a welcome to the neighborhood to all driving by. When you get to an intersection in the middle of nowhere, it’s only an opportunity to find another mailbox. You may not get cell phone reception everywhere, but the world is not flat and you will eventually get home.

The whole mailbox phenomena began with the experiment of “rural free delivery service”, R.F.D. on October 1, 1896 and later as an official service in 1902. Citizens and farmers alike looked around their homes and barns for containers to be stuck on a post by the side of the road. By 1901 the Post Office having heard complaints from delivery people of unsuitable mailboxes being used, appointed a five-person task force to examine mailbox designs. 63 variations were submitted by manufacturers for consideration, with only 14 meeting criteria of design specifications. Rectangular boxes were to be at least 18 x 6 x 6 inches in size; cylindrical boxes were to be not less than 18 x 6 inches. If a patron wanted R.F.D. they would now be required to have a box from the selected list of manufacturers. The companies on that first list included the Postal Improvement Company of Norristown, Pennsylvania, Bates-Hawley of Joliet, Illinois, A.L. Henry, American Metal Company of Ladoga, Indiana, Century Post Company and Bond Steel Post Company, both of Adrian, Michigan, the Century Rural Mail Box Company of Detroit, Michigan and the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company of New Britain, Connecticut. Within a sort time the USPS realized they had created a monopoly of manufacturers and by 1903, 46 different companies were manufacturing rural mailboxes, as per specifications. As they were back in 1903 and still today, all mailboxes are marked “Approved by the Postmaster General”. A final requirement was that the mailbox be installed “buggy high”. In 1915, a USPS engineer, Roy Joroleman, designed the now familiar tunnel shaped mailbox with the signal flag on the side. To encourage widespread acceptance and availability, Joroleman’s design was not patented, nor were restrictions set upon the box’s manufacturer or sale.

All photos Copyright Brett Stern 2010