Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Crying Baby. . .
The United States Postal Service (the “Post Office”) boasts a rich and proud history — deservedly so. From its origins in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General, the Post Office has faithfully served the United States and its citizens since the inception of the country. Franklin’s vision of the Post Office as a reliable, efficient, and affordable resource for communication has been achieved. Even with the current fiscal questions, the Post Office strives to live up to its unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. Even if those appointed rounds included sending babies and children through the mail — with appropriate postage, of course.
Yes. The Post Office accepted and delivered children between 1913 and 1920. A little history provides perspective and a little armchair psychology fills in the “How could that possibly happen?” reaction.
The Post Office initially limited itself to the delivery of letters and small parcels. Larger packages and goods were left to private delivery services. Such private services flourished in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, the Post Office finally recognized the value of expanding its well-established, efficient delivery network. The Post Office understood the need to serve rural communities which were ignored by the delivery services. The Post Office placed together this network and need to create Parcel Post.
Parcel Post operations began on January 1, 1913 with the Post Office then offering to deliver larger packages through the mail. Thereafter, it took but a few weeks for someone to mail a baby through Parcel Post. Jesse and Mathilda Beagle mailed their 8 month old son, James, to his grandmother, Louia Beagle. Postage cost 15 cents and the Beagle parents, as responsible as they were, insured the package for $50. The Post Office mail carrier, Vernon Lytle, reported the package as “well wrapped” and ready for mailing. James was mailed between two towns in Ohio. Further details such as the time between pick up and delivery, where postage was placed on the baby, and whether anyone fed or cared for the baby are not known.
In 1914, the mailing of 4 year old Charlotte May Pierstorff through Parcel Post gained national attention. The Pierstorffs mailed their daughter via train to the grandparent’s house 73 miles away. Postage was less expensive than a train ticket. The Pierstorff story became so popular that it was made into the children’s book, Mailing May.
Contrary to the legend embodied in the book, little Miss Pierstorff was probably treated quite well on her Parcel Post journey. Pierstorff’s cousin worked as a mail clerk for the railway and accompanied Charlotte May on the trip. Charlotte May did not ride inside canvas mail bags.
In 1915, Maude Smith, a 30 pound three year old girl was mailed by train through Parcel Post between two towns in Kentucky. A shipping tag was sewn to the girl’s pink dress which included thirty three cents in stamps and a delivery address. The girl reportedly had some candy and an apple for the journey. The Postmaster at the delivery station responded to the Postmaster at the origin station with the following: “Dear Sir – baby received 8:15, Carny, KY., by postmaster in person. I doubt the legality of the sending, but it was put on train and I must deliver and report.”
Post Office Historian, Jenny Lynch, noted that the Baby James Beagle story from 1913 garnished some headlines “probably because it was so cute.” While it may be a cute story, adjectives such as disturbing, irresponsible and neglectful also come to mind when parents mail babies and children. In fairness, Historian Lynch explained that in underserved rural communities, mail carriers were trusted servants upon which all relied. Even with great trust in Post Office employees, the Postmaster General officially stopped the practice of mailing children on June 13, 1920.
With this new service and form of communication in Parcel Post, it took people merely weeks to “push the envelope” with the Post Office program. I am confident that Ben Franklin did not envision a Post Office which would serve as a child delivery service. I am further fairly certain that the Post Office did not intend its Parcel Post service to become a child care program for anyone who could afford postage. Children sent through the mail appears as a classic unintended consequence of introduction of Parcel Post. Eventually, the Post Office formally halted the practice.
I stumbled upon the children through mail history when reflecting on the recent testimony of Facebook’s CEO before Congress. Zuckerberg testified about unintended consequences of misuse of private information and misuse of the Facebook platform for political gain. For this article, we can place to the side any politics associated with the Facebook testimony as well as the CEO’s need for a booster cushion on his chair for his testimony. As with Parcel Post, customers sought to take a new service in directions never intended. Zuckerberg left the clear impression that Facebook plans never included serving as a vehicle for extreme viewpoints or use by a foreign nation to influence the U.S. political processes. Facebook was a communication tool with an evolving process to make money from the volume of users and communications. As Facebook’s influence and scale became global, the unintended consequences became equally grand in nature.
It matters not if it was Facebook, Twitter, the forgotten MySpace, or the yet to be identified replacement of them all: The point remains that once people get hold of these communication services, they will seek to use them for their own means. A brief internet search disclosed the challenges and unintended consequences of the Post Office introducing Parcel Post. This drama of sending children through the mail was quite public. Yet, Facebook executives, engineers, designers, and great technical minds completely missed these obvious lessons from the past. I leave for others to determine whether Facebook genuinely ran into “unintended consequences” or whether the Facebook business model placed greater emphasis on securing subscribers and advertisers.
We apparently have not learned the lessons from James Beagle, Charlotte May Pierstorff or Maude Smith. We know, and need not assume, that there exist parents who would slap stamps on their kids and tender them to post carriers. We know, and need not assume, that Facebook and similar sites could be hijacked by extremists, foreign nations or others with improper motives. Unlike the James Beagle story being considered “cute” a century later, no one should ever categorize Russia medling in American political processes as “charming”, “cute”, or “adorable” regardless where you fall in the political spectrum. With the amazing reach and influence of technology today, much more is at stake when we ignore lessons we should have learned long ago.
Note: The Post Office motto of “Neither snow nor rain . . .” actually originated in “The Persian Wars” by Herodotus (Book 8, Paragraph 98). Herodotus, a Greek historian, attested to the valor of the wartime Persian messangers with this phrase.