Citing Disuse, USPS Pulls Old Blue Mailboxes

In many neighborhoods, an old fixture is disappearing: the big, blue mailbox. The U.S. Postal Service says people aren't mailing as many letters, and some of the boxes are hardly used. They're pulling out thousands of mail boxes because more and more people are using e-mail and paying bills online.

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Americans don't use the mail as much as they used to, so the U.S. Postal Service has begun to remove thousands of mailboxes from neighborhoods nationwide.

From member station WNPR in Connecticut, Diane Orson reports.

DIANE ORSON: It's an American icon.

(Soundbite of letter being mailed)

ORSON: The big blue mailbox standing faithfully on the street corner. You grew up with it, passed it as you walked to school or on the way home from work day after day after day. Nancy Pope, historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum, says the blue mailbox has come to represent more than a public drop slot. It's something that we trust.

Ms. NANCY POPE (National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution): It's the entry point for the letters to grandma, for paying the bills, for all these pieces of connection that we have in our lives, and when it's not there, we get a little disturbed.

ORSON: Ernestine McCullough-Browning had to walk to the post office in Hamden, Connecticut, this year to send her holiday cards because the mailbox in her neighborhood was removed.

Ms. ERNESTINE McCULLOUGH-BROWNING: There was one on the corner, and I miss it. I used it a lot, and I really wish they would return it.

ORSON: Another mailbox, a block away from Jim Brizinski's home, is also gone, and he thinks he knows why.

Mr. JIM BRIZINSKI: I'm not writing as many letters as I did when I was younger. I still do write thank you notes. I don't sent those via e-mail, but I use e-mail a lot.

ORSON: First class mail was down by 500 million pieces this year compared to last and is expected to keep going down. So mailboxes with fewer than 25 pieces a day are taken away or moved to a busier spot, says U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Yvonne Yeager.

Ms. YVONNE YEAGER (United States Postal Service): Some of the boxes that we find have the highest number of mail pieces deposited in them every day are located near banks or libraries or transit stations and bus stops, those kinds of things.

ORSON: But while letter writing is down, package mail delivery is booming, says Nancy Pope of the postal museum.

Ms. POPE: Amazon.com, eBay, all of these groups, they use various ways to get the stuff there, but that's physical stuff that has to come to your home. You know, there's no way to download a sweater yet off of the Internet.

ORSON: Catalogues and advertising mail are also on the rise. Research shows that customers are more likely to shop in cyberspace if they hold something tangible in their hands while they're online. Back at the Hamden Post Office, Ernestine McCullough-Browning says she likes the tangible connection to family and friends at this time of year and is not about to start sending out eHoliday cards. She'll take the extra walk to the post office to drop her greetings into a mailbox.

Ms. McCULLOUGH-BROWNING: I just think it's important, and it's a personal touch. A card is still a card. I'm old fashioned Christmas.

ORSON: And that's what the postal service is counting on. Like the telephone booth before it, the mailbox on your street corner may become obsolete, but personal cards and letters can never be replaced.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

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