Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 00:03 UK

Decline of the blue box

By Claire Prentice
BBC News, Washington

They are icons of the American mail service, but they may be about to go the way of the Pony Express.

Mailbox

In villages, towns and cities across America, residents are waking up to find the familiar blue mailbox at the end of the road is gone.

In the past 20 years, more than half of America's mailboxes have been taken out of service, leaving just 175,000 nationwide.

It may make commercial sense, but it has dismayed letter-writing aficionados.

"Mailboxes are like phone booths, that part of the scenery that you take for granted until one day you need one and it is no longer there," said Nancy Pope, curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

"It's a sad day when you make your morning commute and see that familiar blue box isn't there anymore."

Big decline

It's a disappointment that more and more Americans should expect.

The mailboxes are being axed as the Government-run US Postal Service (USPS) struggles with a maelstrom in the world of mail delivery.

The volume of mail posted by Americans this year is undergoing a record collapse, predicted to be down by 20 billion pieces in 2009, which would be the single biggest decline in the USPS's 234-year history.

Postman collecting mail c.1950
E-mail has made letters less important than at the time of this 1950s collection

The declines are expected to accelerate, with a predicted fall from the high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to a projected 170 billion pieces in 2010.

The Postal Service is predicting losses of $7bn (£4.3bn) this fiscal year.

The disappearance of the mailbox is a sign of the times, as growing numbers of Americans ditch "snail mail" and instead use the internet to pay bills, write e-mails and send out invitations via social networking sites.

Emergency relief

It is not just regular mail that is down; junk mail, the bane of many householders, is also migrating to the web.

The Postal Service's woes have been compounded by the recession as corporate clients, in particular financial services companies, seek to reduce costs by sending more of their communications electronically.

The situation is so bad that the USPS asked Congress earlier this month for emergency relief, seeking to reduce deliveries from six days to five days a week.

In many cities the disappearance of the blue box from the kerbside has gone unnoticed but residents in some towns and villages have lobbied their local politicians, staged demonstrations and even picketed post offices.

Protests

When the residents of Otisfield in Maine received a notice warning them that their mailbox was going to be removed, they blocked the box in with a digger and a snowplough and threatened to chain themselves to it.

Sharon Matthews
We letter-writers are of a generation of people that doesn't just sit back and take it
Sharon Matthews

The protesters included the town clerk, Sharon Matthews.

"People in the community depend on that little blue box," she says.

"It means something to us. The elderly rely on it, and visitors."

"You'd think they'd try to accommodate those of us who believe in communicating the old-fashioned way."

After their battle made local and national news, the town was granted a reprieve. Matthews fears it may be short-lived now that the television cameras have gone but she says the community will put up a fight.

The David and Goliath battle between the residents of Otisfield and the US government corporation struck a chord with people worldwide.

The town has been deluged with messages of support, along with requests for advice from communities facing similar battles.

"We letter-writers are of a generation of people that doesn't just sit back and take it. And we'd advise other communities to fight back too," Ms Matthews says.

The USPS says it is only removing underperforming mailboxes: those which collect fewer than 25 pieces of mail a day during a week-long test period.

USPS spokesperson Yvonne Yoerger says, "We always conduct a study of usage before we remove a mailbox. If they are near a hospital or a senior citizens' home then even if the mail volume is low, the chances are it will be saved."

'Sense of joy'

The first mailbox appeared on an American street in 1858.

Mail van adapted to run on snow c.1930
Employees had to go to great length to collect mail in tough conditions

The USPS is now obliged to cover every postal address in the US, from the base of the Grand Canyon, home to the Havasupai Indians, to the far reaches of Alaska, where planes and dogsleds enable mail delivery workers to traverse the hostile environment.

The idea of privatising the Postal Service has been raised, but there are fears that investors would be unlikely to want to take on such unprofitable routes.

Several hundred post offices are being studied for possible closure and the USPS is considering introducing additional services to generate new revenue streams.

But for enthusiasts, nothing will ever replace the emotional charge of receiving a letter, a postcard or an invitation in the mail.

"It might save money but receiving a text or an email doesn't have anything like the sense of joy or surprise brought by the sound of a letter dropping on the mat," says Ms Pope at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.



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