Blue Mailboxes Disappear As Mail Decreases

When's the last time you sent an e-mail or paid a bill online? Now how about the last time you sent a letter? This year, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver eight billion fewer letters than it did seven years ago. This sharp decline is why blue mailboxes are disappearing from America's postal landscape.

In Louisville, Ky., there sits a lonely mailbox. It shouldn't be lonely — it's close to a busy intersection, right next door to a real estate office and a financial consulting group. There's a YMCA right across the street and a school just around the corner. And there are tons of people around, dropping off their kids, getting ready for work, doing errands for the day — but none of them are stopping at this bright, blue mailbox.

Tony Goren is one person who does use this mailbox. He works next door at the real estate company and regularly drops off letters to his clients. He says the mailman always "seems" to have his hands full.

"People stop there quite a bit," Goren says. "I'd say he's pulling out a good — you know those plastic bins they use? He's probably pulling out a good, full one of those every time he stops, once a day."

But during the six hours I watched this mailbox, the only person who approached it was the mailman, Robert Carter. "This mailbox doesn't have much of anything in it," he mutters as he peers inside.

Carter scrunches down and pulls out just two pieces of mail. In the 1960s and 70s, when these blue mailboxes were at their busiest, this collection box would average 200 pieces of mail a day.

And this is why Louisville is doing away with a third of its 900 mailboxes.

Fewer people mailing letters means less money for the U.S. Postal Service, which lost $2.8 billion this year. David Walton of Louisville's postal service says in the declining economy, saving money is important.

"Because of this decrease, and like many other private industries, we've been forced to become more efficient," he says.

Walton says eliminating blue collection boxes means fewer miles postal workers have to drive, but officials have no idea how much money it might save.

Other cities are also paring down their blue mailbox fleets. Last year, the post office eliminated almost 4,000 across the country. About 200,000 still remain.

National Postal Museum Historian Nancy Pope says when blue mailboxes disappear, Americans lose part of their heritage.

"You're taking something away that is part of their memory, part of their history, part of their community" she says. "And whether they use it on a regular basis or don't, when something is gone that used to be there, there is a pang there, a nostalgia that just hits in automatically."

Nostalgic or not, the postal service says in a time of economic distress and rapidly decreasing revenue, warm fuzzies can't trump the bottom line.

Stephanie Sanders reports for member station WFPL in Louisville, Ky.

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