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Mailed children among past postal services

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By Rosana Castilho
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, July 22, 2018

 

The U.S. Post Office was created on July 26, 1775, by decree of the Second Continental Congress. In early America, post offices were also known as stations. This term and “post house” fell from use as Pony Express and coach service was replaced by railways, aircraft, and automobiles.

One of the most significant innovations of the early 20th century might be the Post Office’s decision to start shipping large parcels and packages through the mail. This new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans great access to all kinds of goods and services. But, it had some unintended consequences.

Regulations about what you could not send through the mail were vague when post offices began accepting parcels over four pounds on Jan. 1, 1913. People started testing the limits by mailing eggs, bricks, snakes and other unusual packages. So, were people allowed to mail their children? Technically, there was no postal regulation against it.

In January 1913, one Ohio couple “mailed”  their 8-month-old son to his grandmother. They paid 15 cents in postage (although they did insure him for $50), then handed him over to the mailman, who dropped the boy off at his grandmother’s house a few miles away.

“The first few years of parcel post service was a bit of a mess,” says Nancy Pope, head curator of history at the National Postal Museum in Washington. “You had different towns getting away with different things, depending on how their postmaster read the regulations.”

Pope has found about seven instances of people mailing children between 1913 and 1915. It wasn’t common to mail your children, yet for long distances, it would’ve been cheaper to buy the stamps to send a kid by Railway Mail than to buy a ticket on a passenger train.

May Pierstorff’s parents sent her to her grandparent’s house 73 miles away in February 1914. The Idaho family paid 53 cents for the stamps that they put on their nearly six-year-old daughter’s coat. After Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard about this incident, he officially banned postal workers from accepting humans as mail.

Still the new regulation didn’t immediately stop people from sending children by post. A year later, a woman mailed her six-year-old daughter from her home in Florida to her father’s home in Virginia. At 720 miles, it was the longest postal trip of any child, and cost 15 cents in stamps!

In August 1915, three-year-old Maud Smith made what appears to be the last journey of a child by U.S. Post, when her grandparents mailed her 40 miles through Kentucky to visit her sick mother. Though Maud seems to be the last successfully mailed child, others would later try to mail their children. In June 1920, First Assistant Postmaster General John C. Koons rejected two applications to mail children, noting that they could not be classified as “harmless live animals.”

But while slipping kids into the mail may be considered incompetence or negligence, it seems more as an example of just how communities relied on and trusted local postal workers.

Rosana Castilho is the Event Rental Coordinator and a Public Information Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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