The Blue Mailbox

By Graham Bosch

A blue mailbox stands outside the post office at 522 N. Central Ave. in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (Photo by Graham Bosch)
The USPS logo, as of the agency’s founding in 1971. (Photo by Graham Bosch)

The Postal Service

The United States Postal Service as it exists today was founded in 1971 to replace the U.S. Post Office Department. As of 2015, the Postal Service had more than 600,000 employees and 200,000 vehicles — the biggest civilian vehicle fleet in the world. The U.S. Post Office Department was founded in 1792 under direction of Benjamin Franklin, who served as the country’s first postmaster general. In 1872, the department was promoted to a cabinet-level department which remained until the creation of the United States Postal Service.

The USPS doesn’t have an official motto, but most consider it to be the well-known inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City:

“Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
James Farley Post Office in New York, NY. (Photo by Juan Miguel Lago via Wikimedia Commons)

Mail Collection Boxes

The first public mail collection boxes in the U.S. were installed in the 1850s outside post offices and on the streets of large cities in the Northeast. The original mail collection boxes were made to be mounted on light posts and sides of buildings, and by the 1880s they were made of cast iron to prevent theft. Hanging boxes were completely replaced by large, free-standing mailboxes by the 1960s. Taking a leaf out of Canada’s book, the first standalone mailboxes were red. They soon changed to dark green, and then to Army green after World War II left the government with an excess of green paint. From 1955 until the founding of the USPS, the boxes were red, white and blue — very patriotic! With the USPS came the blue mailboxes and eagle logo seen today.

Blue USPS mailbox on Central Avenue in Phoenix, Ariz. (Video by Graham Bosch)

These large metal mailboxes, which stand on four legs and can be seen on many street corners in the U.S., were originally patented by inventor Philip Downing in 1891. Before that, most people either used the small, wall- or post-mounted hanging boxes or brought mail directly to the post office. Downing was a talented inventor; in 1890 he patented an electrical railroad switch that controlled power to trains and eventually led to the creation of electrical light switches for use in homes.

The USPS logo. (Photo by Graham Bosch)

Don’t Mess With the Post Office

Believe it or not, the United States Postal Service has its own law enforcement agency: the United States Postal Inspection Service. Founded in 1772, the USPIS is one of the nation’s oldest law enforcement establishments. Today, it is responsible for “crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the U.S. Mail, the postal system or postal employees.”

(Photos by Graham Bosch)

Former Chief Inspector Martin McGee worked for the USPS Chicago office in the 1970s and was one of the first postal inspectors to use a somewhat obscure federal statute to go after white collar criminals committing fraud. McGee’s work earned him the nickname, “Mr. Mail Fraud,” and uncovered many crimes involving mail, including phony land sales, false advertising, insurance scams and fake charity organizations. McGee and his office moved the focus of the USPIS in Chicago from petty mail theft to large-scale political corruption.

“The Black Mailbox” on Nevada State Route 375, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. (Photo by notevenathing via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Black Mailbox

Possibly the nation’s most famous mailbox — and the inspiration for the title of this post — is a large metal mailbox located on a stark stretch of highway in the middle of the Nevada desert. “The Black Mailbox” is the only landmark for 40 miles along Nevada’s State Route 375, better known as Extraterrestrial Highway. It is a popular tourist destination for science-fiction fans and U.F.O. chasers due to its proximity to the legendary Area 51. The mailbox is actually white; it was originally black but was replaced with a white bullet-proof box by its owner after being vandalized by overly eager fans.

The area along Route 375 first drew national attention after a man named Bob Lazar claimed to have been a former scientist at Area 51 who witnessed the U.S. government hiding alien spacecraft. Hoping to see evidence of such alien activity out in the desert, many alien geeks take pilgrimages out into this desolate region of the Silver State. Area 51, a detachment of Edwards Air Force Base, is in fact the site of top secret military research for the U.S. Air Force involving experimental air craft and weapons. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, though, what are sometimes suggested to be “alien” aircraft are actually most likely unmanned military aircraft or even simply flares sent up to direct missile fire or distract curious onlookers from experimental new aircraft undergoing tests.

Stickers adorn the famous “Extraterrestrial Highway” sign on Nevada State Route 375 in southwest Nevada. (Photo by Kvasir via Wikimedia Commons, Edited by Graham Bosch)
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