Christmas Traditions: The Postbox and Postman

The Post Box
The Post Box

Yesterday we learned about the first Christmas Card so it is fitting that we learn about the post-box and the postman today!

Letterboxes had been known in France from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1653, the first post boxes are believed to have been installed in and around Paris. By 1829, post boxes were in use throughout France. However, the roadside pillar-boxes associated with Great Britain rose to prominence during the Victorian era. 

In the UK, before the introduction of pillar-boxes, it was customary to take outgoing mail to the nearest letter receiving house or post office. Such houses were usually coaching inns or turnpike houses where the Royal Mail coach would stop to pick up and drop off mail and passengers. People took their letters, in person, to the receiver, or postmaster, purchased a stamp (after 1840) and handed over the letter.

Post boxes were first brought to the Channel Islands, at the suggestion of the novelist Anthony Trollope, who had been sent to the islands as a surveyor, by Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary of the Post Office. The problem was the collecting of mail on the islands due to the irregular sailing times of the Royal Mail packet boats, the weather, and the tides. Trollope reported back a recommendation to use a device he had seen in Paris, a “letter-receiving pillar.” It was made of cast iron, octagonal in design, and painted olive green. Trollope suggested that four would be needed for Guernsey and five for Jersey. Vaudin & Son Foundry, in Jersey, first produced them and the first four were placed in David Place, New Street, Cheapside, and St Clement’s Road in St Helier and were first used by the public in 1852. They were instantly popular despite problems with rainwater getting in the boxes!      

The first standard design was made by Richard Redgrave of the Department of Science and Art in 1856 and was immediately taken up for use in London and other major cities. Green was the usual color of the earliest Victorian post boxes.

A decade later the hexagonal, John Penfold Post Box, became the dominant design and from July 1874, there was a gradual adaptation of red as the color that the world would associate with the British pillar-box. Penfold boxes come in three sizes and altogether there are nine different types. The power of the pillar-box as a cultural icon made this particular red, called pillar-box red, particularly useful to the cosmetic industry when describing lipstick and hair color.

Most traditional British pillar boxes produced after 1905 are made of cast iron and are cylindrical. But, alas I did not have one picture of a cylindrical post box in all my pictures!

This summer while scurrying around the country lanes in Sussex looking for a particular garden in the NGS, (Gardens put on display once a year for charity) we came to a cluster of four lanes each going off in a different direction. AND here at the intersection of Nowhere and Nowhere was the Royal Post Box! I had to stop and get a picture!

The Lonely Post Box
The Lonely Post Box

And here is a post box in St Ives, convenient to the teas shoppes!

A Post Box in St Ives, Cornwall
A Post Box in St Ives, Cornwall

And here is another post box in another small village in the UK. Truly a post box!

The English Post Box
The English Post Box

Red is still the default color of British post-boxes, but in 2012 the London Olympics organizing committee celebrated British successes by painting selected boxes gold!

What we now refer to as a “penny-farthing,” those odd looking things with the outsized front wheel, was generally known to the Victorians as the bicycle. The nickname came about around 1891 when the machines were nearly outdated. The penny-farthing takes it’s name from two British coins, one larger than the other just like the two wheels.  In the 1890s the terms “ordinary” or “high wheel” were the preferred names for this type of bicycle and these are the terms used today by enthusiasts.

The Pentacycle Trialled at Horsham, Sussex
The Pentacycle Tested at Horsham, Sussex

The five wheeled bike that the postman used was known as the “Pentacycle.” It was the invention of the architect Edward Burstow in 1882. It was designed for the purpose of carrying mail and this was tested in the county of West Sussex. Although the innovation met with an enthusiastic response from the postmen of Horsham, the idea was not adopted elsewhere. There is a replica of one in the British Postal Museum.

I hope you have enjoyed the post boxes and mailman today! See you tomorrow for more in the Series, Christmas Foods and Traditions!!

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