Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mailing Children by U.S. Parcel Post.

Because of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service, which began in 1896, mail was delivered directly to farm families. Before RFD, rural inhabitants had to pick up their mail themselves, sometimes distant post offices, or pay private express companies for delivery.

On January 1, 1913, the U. S. Post Office began parcel post service for shipping packages throughout the country. Pretty much anything could be mailed that wasn’t dangerous or pose a threat to other pieces of mail.

The new service took right off – almost two million packages were shipped the first week of operations alone. A mortuary in St. Louis mailed human ashes to Illinois for burial, while a mother in St. Paul, Indiana sent lunch to her son who worked in Indianapolis. There were a few snags: a package of skunk hides prompted the evacuation of the post office in Decatur, Illinois.

On January 22, 1913, a woman requested rates for mailing herself from Elgin, Illinois to Washington, D.C.
Just a few weeks after Parcel Post began in January of 1913, Jesse and Mathilda Beagle “mailed” their 8-month-old son James to his grandmother, who lived a few miles away near Batavia, Ohio. Baby Beagle weighed 10¾ pounds, just within the 11-pound weight limit for parcels. The postage was 15¢ and the “parcel” was insured for $50 ($1,300 today). Rural Carrier Vernon Lytle picked up baby Beagle from his parents’ house and transported him in his mail wagon delivering the boy safely to the address on the attached card, that of the boy’s grandmother, Mrs. Louis Beagle, who lived a little over a mile away. 

Although it was against postal regulations (it was never legal), many children traveled via U.S. Mail in the early years of Parcel Post. Initially, the only animals that were allowed in the mail were bees and bugs. In 1918, day-old chicks were allowed in the mail. In 1919, some additional “harmless live animals” were permitted, but children did not fall into this category.
One of the most famous images of a postman carrying baby mail. In fact, there are no photographs of real incidents of children being posted, with all contemporary images being staged for publicity.
The quirky story soon made newspapers, and for the next few years, stories about children being mailed through rural routes would crop up from time to time as people pushed the limits of what could be sent through Parcel Post.

The practice became affectionately known by letter carriers of the day as "baby mail."

In one famous case, on February 19, 1914, a four-year-old girl named Charlotte "May" Pierstorff was “mailed” via train from her home in Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparent's house about 73 miles away. The postage was 15¢, with stamps attached to her coat, and the “parcel” was insured for $50 ($1,300 today).
Charlotte "May" Pierstorff was mailed via the US Postal System.
Luckily, little May wasn’t unceremoniously shoved into a canvas sack along with the other packages. As it turns out, she was accompanied on her trip by her mother’s cousin, who worked as a clerk for the railway mail service, Lynch says. It’s likely that his influence (and his willingness to chaperone his young cousin) is what convinced local officials to send the little girl along with the mail.

In 1914, a mother going through a divorce shipped her baby from Stillwell, Indiana, to its father in South Bend, Indiana. The child traveled the 28 miles in a container marked “Live Baby” for only 17¢.

In 1914, Mrs. E. H. Staley of Wellington, Kansas, received her two-year-old nephew by parcel post from his grandmother in Stratford, Oklahoma, where he had been visiting for three weeks. The boy wore a tag around his neck showing it had cost 18¢ to send him through the mail. He was transported 25 miles by rural route before reaching the railroad. His grandma packed enough food to share with the mail clerks he rode with. He arrived in good condition after the 200-mile one-way trip.

The longest trip taken by a “mailed” child took place in 1915 when a six-year-old girl traveled from her mother’s home in Pensacola, Florida, to her father’s home in Christiansburg, Virginia. The nearly 50-pound girl made the 721-mile trip on a mail train for just 15¢ in parcel post stamps. The postage was much cheaper than a train ticket.

These stories continued to pop up as parents occasionally managed to slip their children through the mail thanks to rural workers willing to let it slide.

Finally, on June 14, 1913, several newspapers including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all ran stories stating the postmaster had officially decreed that children could no longer be sent through the mail. But while this announcement seems to have stemmed the trickle of tots traveling via post, Lynch says the story wasn’t entirely accurate.

“According to the regulations at that point, the only animals that were allowed in the mail were bees and bugs,” Lynch says. “There’s an account of Charlotte May Pierstorff being mailed under the chicken rate, but actually chicks weren’t allowed until 1918.”

But while the odd practice of sometimes slipping kids into the mail might be seen as incompetence or negligence on the part of the mail carriers, Lynch sees it more as an example of just how much rural communities relied on and trusted local postal workers.

“Mail carriers were trusted servants, and that goes to prove it,” Lynch says. “There are stories of rural carriers delivering babies and taking care of the sick. Even now, they’ll save lives because they’re sometimes the only persons that visit a remote household every day.”

The Post Office Department officially put a stop to “baby mail” in 1915, after postal regulations barring the mailing of human beings enacted the year before were finally enforced.

On June 13, 1920, the headline in the Washington Herald read: “CAN’T MAIL KIDDIES – DANGEROUS ANIMALS." The Post Office, in its wisdom, had finally ruled that children were not “harmless animals” and because of their potentiality for danger may not be mailed as parcel post. “By no stretch of imagination or language,” said the ruling, “can children be classified as harmless, live animals that do not require food or water.”

Luckily, there are more travel options for children traveling alone these days than pinning some postage to their shirts and sending them off with the mailman.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


This is the email response I received from an inquiry to the official Historian of the United States Postal Service.

Partial Email Header:
Received: from EAGNMNSXMB60.usa.dce.usps.gov (EAGNMNSXMB60.usa.dce.usps.gov [56.207.244.38]) by mailrelay-c1i.usps.gov (Symantec Messaging Gateway) with SMTP id 0D.0F.17582.03C949E5; Mon, 13 Apr 2020 12:06:56 -0500 (CDT)
Mon  Apr 13 2020 at 12:06 PM

Hi Dr. Gale!
There are several newspaper accounts of children being “mailed” following the introduction of Parcel Post in January 1913. We share one such story on page 38 of "The United States Postal Service: An American History."

The National Postal Museum shares another story.
I hope this is helpful.

Jenny Lynch,
Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager
United States Postal Service

1 comment:

  1. What a story! I can't imagine a container in the mail that says, "Live Baby." Awful!!

    ReplyDelete

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