The tunnel-shaped mailbox is a familiar sight on America's rural roads. First built in the early 1900s, the basic design of this mailbox remains much the same today. It is equipped with a front door large enough for letters and small packages. The box has a flag attached to the side used to signal to mail carriers that there is mail to be picked up in the box.
But sometimes a box is not just a box. Rural Americans use their mailboxes to express their individuality.
Long after city dwellers began to enjoy free home mail delivery, rural Americans still had to travel to the post office--which was often located in a country store--to pick up their mail. Even today some residents in southern Putnam County don't have delivery service and use Post Office boxes.
Rural families often had to journey long distances over tough and muddy roads to get their mail. Farm families, who paid the same postage rates as the rest of the nation, began to complain. For a long time Congress was reluctant to act, fearing that the country was so large that free rural delivery would be a financial disaster.
Eventually they gave in, and experimental rural delivery started in 1896. Eight years later, the popular service became an official part of the Post Office Department.
When rural free delivery service began, patrons looked around their homes and farms for anything they could find to use as a mailbox.
Rural letter carriers soon found themselves face-to-face with a hodgepodge of homemade, semi-functional "mailboxes."
These included Old coal oil, syrup and food containers that were according to the U.S. Postal Museum, "sometimes with sticky remnants of the original contents pooled inside the box, and slapped on top of poles set out along the road."
In 1901, after having received complaints from rural carriers about the large number of unsuitable mail boxes, the Post Office Department appointed a five-man commission to examine commercial rural mailbox designs.
Of the 63 mailboxes submitted for consideration, only 14 met the specifications. This meant that patrons who wanted delivery. service would have to buy a box from the selected list of manufacturers.
Postal officials chose 14 companies for consumers to purchase their mailboxes at the best price. The list of selected companies grew quickly. Companies who were not chosen began to complain about a mailbox "monopoly."
The Post Office Department agreed that any company could manufacture rural mailboxes, provided the boxes were made to postal specifications.
By 1903, 46 companies were manufacturing rural mailboxes. Approved companies Those which passed scrutiny were given an approval mark. Today, boxes are still marked "Approved by the Postmaster General."
Patrons were asked by the Post Office to keep their mailboxes "buggy high" and within easy reach of the carriers. Today, right-hand drive vehicles ensure that carriers can make mail drops without getting out of their cars or driving on the wrong side of the road.
In 1992 and again in 1993, the National Postal Museum asked rural carriers to be on the lookout for intriguing and especially creative rural mailboxes. They have found things from airplanes to full-size replicas of bears.
Putnam County tends to have more traditional art as can be evidenced with a drive along Manhattan Road where you can see mailboxes built like castles (only in plastic) or replicas of houses.
Homes of avid fishermen can be spotted by the giant green bass whose open mouth is the mailbox.
Hand painted mailboxes are common among locals. If you aren't right-brained enough to come up with your own design you can always buy a mailbox cover.
These plastic sleeves come in a variety of designs from college logos, landscape scenes, seasonal themes, to flags and flowers. These are cleverly designed to either wrap around your mailbox or have magnets that hold them in place (if you have a metal box). Local hardware and tractor supply stores carry different designs and you can buy them online from a number of vendors.
Arts and craft shows are a great source for those of you who are looking for something a little out of the ordinary. From the box itself to the pole it sits on, hundreds of designs are available.
Pink flamingos and metal men are popular at craft shows as are flower designs and animals. The fall Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County is filled with vendors who have all types of yard and mailbox designs. Prices range from $5 for plastic sleeves to hundreds of dollars for craftsmen design art boxes.