On Monday, we took a walk down Summer Street in Kennebunk. Our goal was to get some fresh air and look at the houses; we certainly didn’t think we would be confronted with a historical puzzle along the way.
On our walk, we passed an olive-green (aka “olive drab”) metal mailbox which, at first glance, looked identical to the blue mailboxes we’ve all put our mail into at one point or another.
I had seen these before, and could not figure out the point of them. They’re the wrong color, for one thing. All US Mail boxes are blue. Also, this particular olive drab color is exactly the color of the old military vehicles that my dad used to work on at the armory, back when we was a First Sergeant of the 579th Engineer’s Battalion of the California National Guard in Eureka, California.
The color of paint couldn’t be a coincidence. In fact, I remember seeing mailboxes–the real kind that you could actually put mail in–at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and those were the same olive drab color as this one.
I started to wonder if they had a military use, or if perhaps they were relics from a WWII-era world that just hadn’t been removed for some reason.
I asked my mother-in-law about them, and she said she had no clue. She was as puzzled as I, so we walked around and looked at it from all sides, trying to figure it out just by looking.
The first thing we noticed was that, of course, there were no mail slots. There was no way whatsoever to put mail in. There wasn’t the usual drop-down door or even so much as a cut in the metal to allow one to drop in a letter.
Next, we noticed was that there was a single large door, with a lock, and it was on the sidewalk side. That meant that it wasn’t intended to be a drive-up box at all; someone definitely had to walk up, insert a key, and open the door from the sidewalk side of the box. And whatever they were using the box for, it had to be big–because the door was essentially the full side of the mailbox.
We also noticed that there were words on the sidewalk side of the box. They read, “RELAY MAIL”. I asked my mother-in-law if she knew what “Relay Mail” was, and she said she had no idea.
Finally, I realized that this mailbox, or Relay Mail box, was in far too good a shape to have been left since WWII. True, there was a bit of rust, but in Maine, if something is not kept up, the rust will destroy it in nothing flat. There is no way that these mailboxes could have sat on the side of this street for 70 years with no maintenance, so they definitely hadn’t been abandoned. By default, that meant they were still being used by someone, for something.
Finally, I decided the only way to figure it out was to look it up online. So I took a few pictures to remind myself, and went home to check it out.
The answer surprised me:
It turns out that these Relay Boxes are still very much in use in certain places in the United States. They serve as a drop-off point for bundles of mail, which are later picked up by other letter carriers for distribution in the neighborhood. So they truly are a relay point–one carrier drops off, another picks up and distributes.
Of course, that then made me even more curious. Why would you need a relay box if letter carriers use those boxy white trucks–or, as they do here in Maine, right-hand-drive cars? After all, we’ve all seen those mail trucks. They carry a ton of mail, and the whole point is to carry it all in the truck and deliver it from the vehicle. Right?
Not exactly. Summer Street is a perfect example of why Relay Boxes were–and are still–used in so many places. On Summer Street, there is no street parking. The road is a narrow, one-lane-in-either-direction road, with absolutely no parking available. Summer Street also does not have curbside mail boxes–in typical old-style neighborhood fashion, the mailboxes are actually on the houses themselves. That means that a letter carrier needs to walk the route with one of those big mail bags to deliver the mail to the neighborhood.
I have seen mail carriers walking routes before, of course, but I have never lived anywhere where we actually had one. We’ve always had the mail delivered by truck, so it never crossed my mind how those letter carriers got everywhere they needed to go with all that mail. I guess I just assumed they had a truck of their own around the corner–but in large cities, where parking is an issue, or in places like the Northeast where snow causes even more parking problems than usual, letter carriers on foot have to cover a lot of territory–and they need to have someplace secure to store the mail while they’re doing the work.
While doing my searching online, I found a conversation held online back in 2003 that clarified the use of Relay Mail boxes. From “The Straight Dope” message board archives:
Back during a previous war (no, not the Civil War) when I worked summers delivering mail, I worked out of my own car in the city. (And in some suburbs as well. Those were the days of bench seats, so for some routes I would sit on the passenger side, tap the accelerator with my left foot, hold my left hand on the steering wheel and make my way down the street sticking my hand out the passenger window and loading mail into curbside boxes, contorting my body to reach the break with my left foot at each house. Very weird. Very unsafe.)
But in the city I would have mail done up in bundles corresponding to blocks or half blocks. I’d drive to the route and find the green box, usually at the corner of two intersecting streets. All the extra bundles and packages would go into the box. Then I’d put the first bundle in my mail bag and do a section of the route in one direction, come back pick up a new bundle and do another direction and so on until all four directions were done. Then I’d either move to another green box or, more likely, hike a block or two to the start or a new section.
It worked very well because the routes had all been laid out with these starting points in mind.
They have mostly been removed here as being obsolete.
Of course, while these Relay Mail boxes may indeed be obsolete in some areas, in others–such as Summer Street in Kennebunk, Maine–they are still very much in use.
As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story!”