The magic of a mailbox is not necessarily what it looks like, but what it contains. That special envelope, perhaps a baby announcement, a love letter, an official job offer, or even a much-needed tax refund check, are all pieces of mail that can brighten one’s day.
When I left home for the first (and last) time at the age of 17 to attend the University of California, Berkeley, a mere ten miles from my home town of Lafayette, California, it was a given that surprise in-person visits from family were not allowed. This was my first shot at independence, and oh, how I enjoyed being on my own, despite bouts of homesickness.
My first Berkeley residence was a boarding house on Warring Street, housing approximately 30 young women students, recommended by the campus housing office. It was a delightful old house, very “Berkeley-ish,” where I shared a large, street-facing room with three other freshmen women.
And what fun it was to have my very own mail cubby, located off the lobby, between the dining room and kitchen. I frequently received letters, including a weekly one from my mother (after that first year, my parents moved to Connecticut, so the letter exchange routine eventually made more sense); a couple from a boy I had met the previous summer in Colorado; occasional letters from my brother in Massachusetts; missives from my great aunt, grandmother and great grandmother in Colorado; newsy letters from cousins; and even some from friends from the six years of my childhood spent in the Midwest.
One of my well-intended roommates developed the habit of picking up the mail for all four of us. This effectively killed the mailbox magic, and her overly zealous act of kindness was not well received. It seemed that we all shared the feeling that it was more fun to pick up our own mail, and group pressure ended that practice.
There once was a time when the magic of the mailbox might have been reflected in its appearance. Some older buildings still feature beautiful, romantic mailboxes. While renovating the old Merchandise Mart building on Market Street in San Francisco, Twitter and the building owner, Shorenstein, commissioned a piece of public art for the lobby featuring hundreds of stylish, ornate bronze mailboxes, a nostalgic nod to the previous life of the building.
“What was it like in the 1930s to live in a society that took for granted the everyday artisanal craft of such details as each mailbox door’s cast eagle and prim combination lock?” pondered John King, urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Some historic post office buildings have been required by regulation to keep such unique features as the mail window and individual mailboxes. Rincon Annex here in San Francisco has retained the old service windows, but perhaps the most beautiful example is at the Smithsonian’s Post Office Museum in Washington, D.C.
Personal mailboxes, however, most often are less than prosaic. Mail may be delivered through a regulation-sized mail slot in the door or wall of a residence or apartment building, which are subject to certain postal regulations, such as “the bottom of the slot must be at least 30 inches above the floor” and “horizontal slots must have a flap hinged at the top.”
Some choose to have their mail delivered to a dull metal box inside the local post office; apartment buildings generally feature metal cluster boxes. Today, most new home developments are required to provide cluster mailboxes, a cost saving measure for the U.S.P.S., enabling the carrier to deliver mail to a limited number of locations, eliminating door-to-door delivery.
Our neighbor Jeanne has gone against the grain in a neighborhood where mail is mostly delivered through mail slots. Amidst her always changing, colorful front garden, where flowers are always in bloom no matter what time of year, she has installed a suburban-style mailbox on a post, the sort of mailbox I grew up with.
No matter the type of mailbox, I always get slightly excited when I see the postal delivery carrier on the street. Who knows what magic might lie in this day’s mail?
How and Why Public Art Enriches Our Landscape by John King, San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2015