It’s here again already – National Letter Writing Day is Sunday, Oct. 9. And what a pleasure it is when a real letter arrives in the mailbox. A letter separate and distinct from the usual junk mail that flows through the mail stream, which is now exponentially increased by the proliferation of election-related ads and flyers.
Decades past, if one had a mailbox at the post office, the front of the box might have been made of glass, especially if the post office was very old. These mailboxes often included a combination lock, though usually a key opened the door. If not rolled up inside the magazines, the top piece of mail would be visible from the window, increasing anticipation of that letter soon to be read.
It is a habit of mine to look for interesting and unusual mailboxes when I am out and about. Writing this from 7th Ave. in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I came across a lovely piece of art. This is the type of mailbox that I grew up with, very suburban, only without the artwork.
As a young child, I attended the Glorietta School in Orinda, CA, a town located in the San Francisco Bay Area’s east bay. We lived on a cul-de-sac that spilled down from a hill, surrounded by open space. Our dog and cat roamed freely, generally safe from harm, other than from ticks, foxtails or burrs, from the wild grass and brush that grew thick just beyond our back yard.
Each weekday morning, my brother and I walked up the hill to the nearby cross street, where the school bus would come to pick us up. Along the way, as we walked past each neighbor’s house on the block, there would be a mailbox on the curb, attached to a post, with the opening facing the street. If people had outgoing mail, they lifted the flag on the box to signal to the postal carrier that there was mail to pick up.
My grandmother, who lived in Colorado, had a medium to large-sized post office box. The mailbox was modern enough, for the ‘50s and ‘60s, to not have a see through glass window. Perhaps privacy already had become an issue, for both the post office and its mailbox renters.
When Granny picked up her mail, the box often included large fashion catalogues sent from New York and Paris, as well as oversized, magazine-type publications with pages and pages of fabric samples. When she was not building a new house to sell for profit, Granny sewed for a living. She was one of those magicians who could look at a picture of a beautiful, high fashion dress, suit or bridal wear, and replicate it, down to the last detail of decorative hand stitching and fabric covered buttons.
Mailboxes today are, for the most part, homogenized. Post office boxes have standard, dull metal faces. Newer home developments no longer have curbside delivery, but rather, cluster mailboxes. The clusters are comprised of yet more metal-faced boxes, stacked neatly side by side and on top of one another. Beauty has given way to efficiency for the cashed-strapped USPS.
While the need for mail privacy has never been greater, it is a pleasure to come across old-fashioned mailboxes. This gem of a post office, established in 1854, with its glass-windowed mailboxes, is located in Tomales, CA. Tomales lies a half hour to the east of Tomales Bay. This is one place where the residents fought the government (and won) to keep their old-style mailboxes. These are people who value beauty and character over standardization. The personable Tomales postmistress suggested that I also check out the vintage mailboxes in the small town of Inverness, on the west side of Tomales Bay.
Tomales Bay is a magical area, one that I never tire of visiting. Just to the west of the bay, over a range of hills, lies the Pacific Ocean. The hilltops are home to Tule elk and other wildlife. The original inhabitants of Tomales Bay were the Miwok Indians, later giving way to cattle ranchers. The town of Tomales, with a current population of 200, later became a farmers’ village. In the more recent past, according to the postmistress, building trades workers made it their home.
The Tomales Bay area is largely undeveloped, bucolic, and exceedingly pricey. Large swaths of land, longtime home to dairy cattle, are no longer privately owned but rather are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).
There is something romantic about a post office box that looks like these. Who knows what mysteries, secrets, and history might be told in the incoming and outgoing documents. If a post office such as the one in Tomales were located near me in San Francisco, I would jump to rent a box, just for fun. Perhaps I would bribe my friends to write me letters. To the best of my ability, I would keep the address a secret from marketers. But even if I never received a letter in that lovely, glass fronted mailbox, I would treasure it for its possibilities.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Tomales Regional History Center
United States Postal Service Tomales
This Post Has 5 Comments
JWF9 Oct 2016
Loved your recollections of getting the mail in the past!
Nancy10 Oct 2016
When I was of kid size bike riding age, we used to ride to the quiet suburban PO, go in and have a chat with the post master there if he wasn’t busy. I was always intrugued by those who came in to get their mail from the glass fronted boxes as my family’s mail was delivered to our house; who were those important people? But the most interesting space there was reserved for the FBI most wanted poster. My friends and I would study these faces and descriptions very carefully just in case we might see any of them so we could report their whereabouts!
Marcia Schneider13 Oct 2016
Gosh, I had forgotten all about those posters!
Mary11 Oct 2016
Those boxes in Tomales look like the ones I saw and used as a student at UC Berkeley in the early 90s. Although a few days late, I will send a post card in honor of October 9.
Kay Roberts16 Nov 2016
We had a lovely old fashioned mailbox on our San Francisco street but we became worried about identity theft since it was so accessible to the sidewalk, so we replaced it with a mail slot in our front door. I miss it and our poor postman must miss it even more, since he has to navigate some ungenerous steps to toss the mail in.