Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences and Post Boxes

If I told you the first post boxes were installed in Paris in 1653, I am not sure that is correct as mail was being collected 150 years earlier under a milkwood tree from a shoe, granted not a box. I tell no lie.

This first and only postal shoe box (opposite right) is to be found in Mossel Bay, South Africa, when the Portuguese explorers in the very late 1400s put into port, for refuelling of fresh water and provisions, and would leave important letters, about their trip to India and the Spice Islands, for the next sea voyageur to read. These were put in a shoe, hung in a large milkwood tree to be collected by a later ship.

First Paris street letter box from c.1850

So let us go back to the first permanent post box in Europe, which was believed to have been installed in Paris in 1653. Perhaps you call them mail boxes? But I guess you know what I mean – boxes into which letters can be ‘dropped’, then collected by the mail service for onward delivery.

In Victorian Britain they were also called lamp boxes (because they were affixed to lamp posts); Ludlow wall boxes – built of wood, came to be built into stone pillars or the walls of buildings and were never free standing; and last but not least the name we call them today - ‘pillar boxes’.
Lamp box mounted next to a sewer gas destructor lamp in Crookes, Sheffield
(the main purpose of these was to remove sewer gases and their hazards).

Ludlow EIIR plate, now disused, built into a garden wall at a country house in North Wales (to the left)
These collection boxes, mailboxes, drop boxes, or pillar boxes were originally hexagonal in shape and painted green with the first one actually being erected in Jersey, Channel Islands in 1852. The Victorians managed to standardise the colour to green for 21 years, before changing it over to red (a colour now known as pillar box red); however the design continued to be improved for many more years being adjusted to the appropriateness of the locality.

Outgoing mail used to be taken to a ‘letter receiving house’, usually coaching inns, or turnpike (toll) houses where the Royal Mail coach would drop passengers and drop or collect letters. The Royal Mail traces its history back to 1516 when Henry VIII established a “Master of the Posts”; the service was available to the public from 1635 with postage being paid by the recipient!
This rare Victorian 2nd National standard wall box near Andover in Hampshire has a large hood and a pedimented top to keep the rain out (above right)

The Uniformed Penny Post was introduced in 1840. By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day.

Law of Unintended Consequences – the first was the painting of the pillar boxes a bronze green colour chosen as it was thought that would be unobtrusive. Too unobtrusive as it turned out – people kept walking into them. So red they became.
This rare Edward VIII pillar box door shows the built-in posting aperture, collection plate and the Royal Cipher. (Remember King Edward VIII abdicated in under a year of succession in December 1936).

The next Law of Unintended Consequence was not foreseen, nor could it be stopped – once the genie escaped the posting box. As letters could now be posted at numerous places, ladies no longer needed to rely on the coachman or servant to take their letter to the ‘receiving house’ for onward delivery.

Can you guess what happened – yes the emancipation of women – ladies were able to start directing their own lives and ultimately became free to contract, to marry and to vote. This was not an obvious outcome that the Victorians expected with the introduction of the posting boxes around cities, towns and country. This rapid change was also abetted by the numerous collections during the day – six to twelve letters being written and received in one day ... love rushes in!
Day dress of c. 1875 James Tissot painting

The Law of Unintended Consequences in common usage, is a wry or humorous expression warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them – I just liked the idea that the introduction of pillar boxes freed us women, to allow us to be where we are now; while the fact that people walked into post boxes because they blended in to the landscape too much - made me laugh: the thought of the Victorians wandering along and going kerplunkt – only to find they initiated an unintended consequence for Victorians to bump into an iron box – strikes me as fun! Hope you think so too?
PS: (Traditionally UK post boxes carry the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time of their installation: VR for Victoria Regina (Queen Victoria); GR for George V, ER for Edward VIII, GR for George VI and ER for Elizabeth Regina.)

& that Law of Unintended Consequences .. why oh why, when I set it all out "so nicely" with paragraphs all clearly delineated does Blogger decide to take matters into its own little murky paws and make its own miserable mess up??!! It does irritate me when it does it .. ??!!

Dear Mr Postman – oh oh .. the cold is coming back. My mother is better I’m pleased to say, but she still can’t hear .. we wait for it to resolve this week. It’s difficult communicating – as she can’t hear, and has left-sided neglect – so can’t read properly either .. we did watch the rugby match yesterday, as she was awake and I think loved having something ‘to do’. Difficult times – we’ve got a mini whiteboard – but as I said .. I’m not sure how much she can see – as we can’t talk to each other .. it’s something I can’t work out. Let’s hope it sorts itself out.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Jannie Funster said...

Big Texas hugs to you and your mom.

And beautiful post! The King Edward would look wonderful in our home!


Wilma Ham said...

Hi Hilary.
Ha, us women freed by letterboxes, now that is interesting.
The story about the shoe got my intention. Our 5th of december celebration fo St Nicolas also involves a shoe. Weeks before children set their shoe in front of the heater with a carrot in it for the horse. Then in the morning they find a sweet in their shoe in return when they have been good of course. I never questioned why a shoe, but maybe it got to do with that old custom. Hmm.

Daphne @ Joyful Days said...


I too laughed at the thought of Victorians in their dignified garb and wigs walking plonk! into a postbox... hilarious. I had no idea about the history of postboxes and loved this post.

Letter-writing is a dying art but I still do it and love walking to a postbox to drop an envelope in... I'm glad I live in the emancipated era!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jannie .. thanks for the big hugs - we need them .. it's cold!! Please don't tell me you're going to remodel your home to incorporate this wonderful Edward VIII pillar box??!! It would be fun to see .. have an excellent smiling week .. xxoo

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. I too thought that we had the chance to communicate for the first time without being controlled by our fathers, grandfathers, brothers etc .. or the culture of the times as very interesting in freeing us a little more at that time. The women were already agitating to become their own people and being able to communicate ‘so easily’ must have made that extra difference.

Yes – it was something that I was going to write about in December – but never got there .. this year now! It seems that shoes were talismans, and very precious, as they were often hidden in houses to be found centuries later .. especially childrens’ shoes. I now wonder where the use of a sock here for our offering for Santa Claus came from ..there must be a link somewhere – your shoes in Holland and Europe and shoes here .. – til Christmas then .. thanks - Wilma for the thought process. Me too going hmm hmm!!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Daphne – good to see you .. glad you laughed too .. and they certainly wore a lot of clothes, but without heating one can see why. So many things we just assume are normal – but hey ho .. they were around centuries ago.

Letter-writing .. well you know I keep doing it! Me too – am very glad I live in the emancipated era – letters and cards are so lovely to receive. My mother loves them. Thank you for your thoughts - Hilary

T. Powell Coltrin said...

This post is so interesting for me since my mother was a postmaster for 30 years here in MO. I love hearing about life and history in your part of the world.

Prayers for your mama and you, Hilary. You are such a good daughter.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Teresa .. how interesting that must have been - growing up in and around a PO - the hub of the area. So glad you love reading about the bits and bobs of our English life and its history ..

Thanks so much for the thoughts for my Ma - it's kind of you .. have a good week .. Hilary

Chase March said...

Mailboxes? what are they for?

I'm just kidding. Nice little history lesson here.

I haven't written an actual posted letter in a long time. Perhaps I should.

Patricia said...

Glad your mum is feeling better, and do recognize the frustrations of hearing and reading problems. My mum used to watch hockey games to take her mind off the down days.

I love the idea that mail boxes allowed women to communicate with more freedom. Now women feel the need to not need....and are so isolated again...we did not learn about how vital communication is...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chase .. well by the sound of it you haven't a clue where they are?! I know you do .. and a real letter or nice appropriate card might amaze and please someone hugely.

Do you not teach the kids how to write a letter? What about thank you letters for presents? Just a thought ... I know my father and I thinkwe did too -used to copy-write letters using potato stencils filling in the blanks .. or just used the word present .. oh I get annoyed now as an elder!! when I receive one like that ..

I think you just should!! Bye for now - glad you enjoyed the history bit though .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia .. yes it's tricky and we'll see what happens - just hope it comes back. Mum hates the tv!! and because she can't do anything herself - the only entertainment she really wants is her children, visitors and Janice our healing lady, who's wonderful. Few visitors .. and really only me visiting - but that's fine ..

I just thought that concept was probably right .. but as you say communication proper has all but disappeared ... thank goodness for us. I miss my friends they're scattered - but when I can get up and go I'll catch up again. Just glad your heart-chicken pot worked so well!

BK said...

Hi Hilary, glad to read that your mother is better. Hope it will all work out better soon. Wishing goodness in you and her life.

Walking right into the post boxes made me laugh too and I remember once I walked right into a glass wall; the result of it, I got a big bump on my forehead.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi BK (Symphony of Love) .. thank you abot my mother .. me too I hope she can hear again soon. Thanks for the goodness thoughts - appreciated.

Don't we all walk into the most 'stupid' of things - and glass walls are one of the worst - nasty bump .. we can laugh about it later, but not at the time - ooch! Glad you enjoyed it - thanks .. Hilary

Chase March said...

Hi Hilary,

Letter writing is something that I teach. I also write thank you cards whenever I get a gift from a student. However, I usually hand deliver them in class.

Mailing letters to the house and having students answer them through the mail might be a great homework assignment.

Thanks for the great idea!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chase .. didn't think that it wasn't taught; are you allowed to receive gifts? Over here (I think) they've banned it!! The ones who can afford would do, the ones who couldn't wouldn't .. so it was considered unfair. Good for you to write back - it sets a good example for the future for them.

Interesting - wonder how it'll go - glad you got a "bright idea" from a visit here .. let me know in due course ..
Have a good week - Hilary

Mark said...

Amazing how much I learn when I come here. Thanks for all of the information that you share.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark .. good to see you - and thanks for appreciating the information I put across - I'm grateful .. Hilary

Tess said...

Hillary I can't believe they tried to blend in flower boxes. I would land head first into them if anyone did that today. Kerplunk...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Tess .. I think at that stage it was just the paint colour & I guess they weren't used to obstructions on their pavements. However the arts and crafts movement might have had some say in adding flowers to the post boxes .. fun thought .. me too I go kerplunkt too often ..

Have a good day today .. and good to see you here ..

Liara Covert said...

In America, people reminisce about the poney express, which was essentially a one man show riding a horse long distances to deliver original mail. Althought mechanisation and other modern technologies are supposed to facilitate snail mail, one can also understand why email and instantaeous telepathy are becoming the preferred way to communicate with immediacy.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. I was going to include other aspects of postal systems from around the world - then it starts getting complicated!

However - letters are still important - they show a personal connectedness .. and are much appreciated by the recipients: at least the ones I've been posting out (via Royal Mail - with a stamp on!) have been .. and my mother and Derek really love/d getting personal post.

However - email and posting is brilliant - instant communication makes life easier sometimes too. Won't it be great when telepathy takes over .. will it be completely - or will we sometimes still embrace other mechanisms ...?

Who knows? - thanks for your comments and thoughts .. Hilary