Patent drawing of the first lamppost-attached mailbox
The remnants of this Orr & Painter letter box was found following the great Johnstown Flood of 1889, a major disaster that cost thousands of lives.
Green-colored Van Dorn-style mailbox
By the mid-1800s adhesive postage stamps were widely used, and the Post Office Department recognized that people no
longer needed to go to the post office to deposit their letters. Instead, they could keep stamps at home and mail
letters at their leisure. So the department began to build and distribute mailboxes throughout U.S. cities.
Credit for patenting the first letter box officially sanctioned by the Post Office Department goes to a Philadelphia
iron products manufacturer, named Albert Potts. His idea, which was patented on March 9, 1858, was to incorporate
the letter box into either existing street side lamppost, or new lampposts to be provided by his firm. Pott's
receptacles were small. As a result, they probably required frequent emptying. To eliminate the constant need for
collections, a larger box was obviously required.
In 1860 a contract was awarded to John Murray for the production of 1,600 larger lamppost letter boxes. Like the
Potts' boxes, these were literally incorporated into the lamp posts. No original examples of the Murray mailbox
are known to have survived.
The Orr & Painter iron manufacturers of Reading, Pennsylvania began manufacturing another style of mailbox in the
early 1880s. Their cast iron boxes were designed to be hung anywhere, from telegraph poles to the sides of buildings.
During the same year as the Johnstown Flood, the Post Office Department ordered the production of a new style mailbox.
Designed by Willard D. Doremus, three sizes of this style of box were produced. These boxes were not very strong and
were easily shattered by thieves who made off with the mail. The lip over the letter slot often broke, letting in rain
By 1891 the U.S. Post Office Department had over 48,400 letter boxes of various types in use around the country.
When postal officials accepted this style box, developed by Eugene D. Scheble, a dentist from Toledo, Ohio, the
postal system encountered a great deal of trouble. Illegal deals were involved in the selection of the mailbox.
Ultimately several prominent persons were indicted by a grand jury in 1903 on charges of conspiracy and fraud in
connection with the letter box contracts, but not before more than 49,300 Scheble style boxes had been purchased.
The Scheble mailbox was made of sheet metal, not iron.
The Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio, was selected to make better boxes. Although Van Dorn boxes were known for
their durability to weather, they were rather homely in appearance. Despite the fact that some models were "spruced up"
by the addition of fancier handles, they were generally so unattractive that in some cities local postmasters were
requested, if not absolutely required, to remove them from boulevards, avenues, and streets where the letter boxes were
out of harmony with the ornate electric lampposts then in use.
The color of some Van Dorn letter boxes was another major problem. For a brief period, some boxes were painted bright red.
These were frequently confused for similarly painted fire alarms and police call boxes. To overcome this, postal officials
directed that boxes should generally be painted dark green.
Close-up photograph of a Doremus-style mailbox
Van Dorn-style mailbox