The U.S. Postal Service Used to Deliver Babies and Children in the Early 20th Century

Jhemmylrut Teng

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Mailmen carrying babies for delivery(Source: Vintages.com)

Once upon a time, in the United States of America, it was legal to send babies and children through the U.S. Postal Service. Sending large parcels was considered a significant innovation at the beginning of the 20th century.

The delivery system was a great convenience for the Americans, particularly those living in rural areas. The new service thrilled the population to the point that they had started to send anything they could through the parcel post, even their babies and children.

No stringent guidelines on packages

On January 1, 1913, the U.S. Postal Service announced its latest expansion of delivering large parcels or packages nationwide. At first, farm families were anxious to accept the new service. Before 1913, farmers had to bring their goods to the nearest town that was large enough to support an express office, which added to the city’s price for transporting their products.

However, because of the convenience of delivering their goods right from their door — the new postal’s system became a phenomenon, as Americans had better access to a wide variety of goods and services. The parcel service became essential in the United States. During its first six months of operations, there were about 300 million parcels already delivered around the country. Since then, the post’s officials increased the allowable weight of packages from eleven to twenty pounds. Eventually, the maximum weight rose again from twenty to fifty pounds.

The first package the U.S. Postal Service delivered was a box of six eggs mailed from St. Louis to Edwardsville, Illinois. When it was sent back to St. Louis, it was already a freshly baked cake. According to Smithsonian’s National Museum curator Nancy Pope, the U.S. Postal Service then failed to specify what could and not could be mailed via the new parcel delivery service. Therefore, Americans tested the limit of sending parcels.

Baby Mail: very special parcels

In mid-January 1913, Jesse and Mathilda Beagle “mailed” their eight-month-old son James to his grandmother in Batavia, Ohio. Baby James was nearly eleven pounds, which was still under the weight limit for packages sent via parcel post.

“The boy’s parents paid 15-cents for the stamps and even insured their son for $50.” — Nancy Pope

The postman, named Vernon O. Lytle, delivered James to his grandmother, Mrs. Louis Beagle. The Beagles’ story landed in the newspapers, which encouraged other parents to follow suit. At least five more children were officially mailed and delivered between 1914 and 1915.

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An article about Baby James sent via mail(Source: Smithsonian Museum)

Mail-order-baby inquiry

On January 16, 1913, Postmaster-General Hitchcock received a letter addressed to him, its sender was asking how to wrap a baby in a suitable way.

Ft. McPherson, Ga.
Postmaster General:
Washington, D.C.
“Sir: I have been corresponding with a party in Pa. about getting a baby to rais[e] (Our home being without One). May I ask you what specifications to use in wrapping, so it [Baby] would comply with regulations and be allowed shipment by parcel post as the express Co. are too rough in handling. Yours — “

Hitchcock, being a bachelor, had seriously no idea how to respond to such an inquiry. However, he considered consulting experts regarding babies’ transportation.

From mailing babies to mailing children

A story in the New York Times published a similar report wherein a grandmother in Stratford, Oklahoma, sent a two-year-old child to his aunt in Wellington, Kansas:

“The boy wore a tag about his neck showing it had cost 18 cents to send him through the mails. He was transported 25 miles by rural route before reaching the railroad. He rode with the mail clerks, shared his lunch with them and arrived here in good condition.” — New York Times

However, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the most famous story of child-mail was Charlotte May Pierstorff, a four-year-old child, weighing forty-eight point five pounds. Her parents realized that sending her by mail would be cheaper than buying her a train ticket. They purchased a fifty-three cents parcel post stamp and attached it to May’s coat.

May rode in the train’s mail compartment all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. She was delivered to her grandmother’s home by Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty. However, according to some reports, May’s cousin also worked in the postal service, that’s why she got on board. When Postmaster-General Albert Burleson heard about this incident, he banned postal workers from accepting humans as mail.

Still, the new regulation didn’t immediately stop people from sending their children by post. A year later, a woman mailed her six-year-old daughter from her home in Florida to her father’s house in Virginia. At 720 miles, it was the most extended postal trip of children that has ever been identified, which cost fifteen cents in stamps.

Special handling of babies and children

“A mailman might have carried a swaddled child who couldn’t walk, but he wouldn’t have let a diaper-wearing babysit in a pile of people’s mail.” — Jenny Lynch

According to the United States Postal Service historian Jenny Lynch, babies and children delivered via mail were not sacked into boxes or wrapped like gifts, they were handled with care. A manifestation of Lynch’s statement was the story of Maud Smith, a three-year-old who was mailed by her grandmother forty miles through Kentucky to visit her sick mother on August 31, 1915.

Maud was put on an O & K train at Caney, Morgan County, and arrived at Jackson at 11:00 a.m. The mail clerk pinned a letter on her dress and stated that he doubted the mailing’s legality. However, he said, “the child was on the mail train; therefore, she must be delivered.” On the way to her mother’s house, Maud was seen sitting on a pile of mail sacks in the postman’s wagon.

“A great crowd followed the mail wagon from the L & E depot as mail carrier James Haddix carried a parcel post-baby to the Jackson post-office. The child was seated on the pack full of mail sacks between the mail carrier’s knees and was busily eating away at some candy [she] carried in a bag. In the other hand [she] carried a big red apple and [she] smiled when the curious folks waved their hands and called to her.”
“The child was wearing a pink dress to which was sewed a shipping tag, covered on one side with thirty-three cents in stamps and on the other side had the following words: To Mrs. Celina Smith, care Jim Haddix, Jackson Ky., from R.K. Maden, Caney, Ky.”

Permanent halt for sending babies and children

Some accounts said that Maud Smith appears to be the last child to be sent via mail. However, Lynch said that it was unlikely, as some reports stated that the mailing of babies and children continued until the 1920s.

Also, based on the news of the Los Angeles Times on June 14, 1920, First Assistant Postmaster-General Koons finally ruled that the activity was unacceptable as babies and children “did not come within the classification of harmless live animals.” Since then, babies and children have had to ride the train, bus, and plane like everyone else and not with cargoes, letters, bugs, and animals.

While the odd practice of mailing out children might be seen as incompetence or negligence on the part of the mail carriers, Lynch argued that it was more an example of how rural communities relied on and trusted local postal workers. Mail carriers were trusted public servants, and even infants’ and children’s lives were entrusted upon their hands to ensure they safely arrived at their destination.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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