In the previous post, I mentioned that Her Majesty’s Royal Mail has trademarked its logo shade of red, used traditionally for phone boxes (US: phone booths), for the vans the posties drive, and on pillar boxes—the British version of blue American mailboxes. But of course I should really say that the blue American mailboxes are the US versions of pillar boxes, because the UK had them first.
In the British Isles, free-standing column-shaped boxes for posting letters date back to 1852, when the Post Office sent someone to investigate ways of speeding up the mail to and from the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The investigator they chose to send was, surprisingly, the novelist Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office at the time. He suggested free-standing mail collection boxes, though he may have borrowed that idea from the French. In any case, the oldest pillar box still in use is doing its job on Guernsey. In addition to Trollope’s “letter-receiving pillars”, the Royal Mail uses wall boxes—set into walls so that the front of the box is flush with the surface of the wall—and lamp post boxes—which sit up on poles, but not necessarily street-lamp poles.
One of the most interesting features of pillar boxes is the Royal Cypher, an heraldic device for a member of the royal family, something like a monogram, but with less intertwining of the letters. Each pillar box (with a very few exceptions) displays the Royal Cipher for the monarch on the throne at the time that pillar box was erected.
I don’t have photographs of pillar boxes of every monarch from Victoria onward (that would be truly nerdy), but almost all of them (so that’s not quite so nerdy, then). I’ve even got a picture of one showing the Royal Cypher of Edward VIII, who was king for less than a year and was never crowned, so pillar boxes with his Royal Cypher are rare.
You can find blue American mailboxes in the UK; you just have to go to a US military base. I confess that once after visiting some cousins in the US Air Force who lived on an American base in the UK—sitting in their American-style home, eating American brands of food they bought on the base, and passing the blue American-style mailboxes at the corner of their street—drove my car off the base and out onto an English road, but onto the wrong side of the road. The mailboxes in particular, I think, had fooled me into thinking I was back in the States.
There’s a (probably untrue) story about a prince from a developing country whose family sent him to school in the UK. When he went home, he told them about the wonderful postal system, and had pillar boxes erected throughout the country. He neglected, however, to hire anyone to collect the mail from the pillar boxes and deliver it, or in other versions I’ve heard, he ran out of money, or there was a coup in which his family was thrown out of power and someone else, uninterested in regular delivery of the mail, took over. If anybody can tell me whether there’s any truth in the tale, I’d be interested to know where this happened.
The thought of the letters in that poor (and probably fictitious) country languishing uncollected in pillar boxes does strike a chord today, since the new Tory-LibDem coalition government just announced new plans to sell the Royal Mail and let it take its chances on the free market with other delivery services. I should note that when I said in my last post that the Royal Mail turns a profit, the report from which I got that information apparently didn’t take into account many, many millions the Royal Mail is obligated to pay to retirees who have Royal Mail pensions, though exactly how selling off the service to the private sector is going to remedy that, I’m not sure. Stay tuned for updates; if they screw up the delivery of the mail, we’ll have still have email. At least for now…