At one time, nations paired up to negotiate postal treaties providing for the direct exchange of mail. The US signed such a treaty with Prussia, in 1853. Germany wasn’t a country in those days in the sense that it is today, more of a collection of independent city-states. Some states in southern Germany sent US-bound mail through France but, there being no Franco-American treaty, mail was forced to travel on British or Belgian cargo vessels. France and the United States wrangled over a postal treaty from 1852 until July 1874 leading the exasperated Minister to France Elihu Washburne to groan: “There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.”
The German Empire was formed in 1871 following victory, in the Franco-Prussian War. The German Reichspost was now free to enact uniform postal regulations within the new nation. Even so, US-bound letters required differing amounts of postage, depending on which ship the letter traveled on. Something had to change.
German Postmaster-General Heinrich von Stephan called for an International Postal Congress in 1874. The Treaty of Bern signed on October 9 resulted in a uniform system of postage between nations. That, and a very nice statue in granite and bronze in memory of the new, Universal Postal Union.
All was well between nations but here in the US, the postal service was barely out of diapers. The mail didn’t even go to the “country”. Rural residents were forced to travel days to distant post offices or hire private express companies, to deliver the mail. For years, the National Grange and other farmers’ welfare organizations lobbied Congress for inclusion in the national mail service. The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) act of 1896 opened new worlds to farmers who soon clamored for exotic foodstuffs and tobacco unavailable in rural districts.
Unsurprisingly, rural merchants and express delivery companies fought the measure tooth and nail but they were destined to fail. Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913.
Overnight, parcel limits increased from 4 pounds to fifty. During the first five days alone 1,594 post offices handled over 4 million packages.
People tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.
You know where this is going, right?
In 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beauge of Glen Este, Ohio mailed their baby boy. Seriously. The couple mailed their ten-pound son off to his grandmother’s house a mile away at a cost, of 15¢ postage. History fails to record whether the kid was left in the mailbox or stuffed through a slot in the door, but these people were no cheapskates. The pair popped for 50 bucks’ insurance, “just in case“.
5-year-old May Pierstorff came in just under the weight limit at 48½ pounds. On February 19, 1914, little May was mailed to visit her grandmother in Lewiston Idaho with 53¢ postage, pinned to her coat. She rode the whole way in the postage compartment but hey, postage was cheaper than train fare. Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty delivered the kid to her grandmother’s house, personally.
Six-year old Edna Neff was mailed 720 miles away from Pensacola, Florida to Christiansberg, Virginia, to visit her father.
.If you have read thus far with horror permit me to assure you that mailing babies might not be as bad as it sounds. In the rural America of this period the mail carrier was no stranger but a well known and trusted member of a close-knit community. In the case of little May Pierstorff the postal worker who took her by rail, was a relative. No one ever put a child wearing diapers in a mailbox. The photographs above were staged, the sepia-toned faces grinning back over the years at those of us, they have punked.
Be that as it may, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard of the Pierstorff incident and put his foot down. The practice of mailing humans was officially prohibited. The golden age of baby mail had come to an end. Sort of.
In August 1915 three-year old Maud Smith was mailed forty miles across Kentucky by her grandparents, to visit her sick mother. Hers may be the last human journey by US mail and the postmaster in Caney Kentucky, had some explaining to do.
In June 1920 1st Assistant Postmaster General John C. Coons rejected two applications to mail live children stating they could no longer be classified, as ‘harmless live animals”.