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September 30, 2017

Mailing Babies: When It Was Legal to Send Children Through the U.S Postal Service in the Early 20th Century

Once-upon-a-time, it was legal to mail a baby in the United States. It happen more than once and by all accounts, the mailed tots arrived no worse for wear. Yes, “baby mail” was a real thing.

One of the most overlooked, yet most significant innovations of the early 20th century might be the Post Office’s decision to start shipping large parcels and packages through the mail. While private delivery companies flourished during the 19th century, the Parcel Post dramatically expanded the reach of mail-order companies to America’s many rural communities, as well as the demand for their products.

When the Post Office’s Parcel Post officially began on January 1, 1913, the new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans great access to all kinds of goods and services. But almost immediately, it had some unintended consequences as some parents tried to send their children through the mail.

A staged photograph of a letter carrier with a baby.

A New York Times article from that year describes one such good—a baby boy in Ohio who was sent by mail to his grandmother:
“Vernon O. Lytle, mail carrier on rural route No. 5, is the first man to accept and deliver under parcel post conditions a live baby. The baby, a boy weighing 10-3/4 pounds, just within the 11 pound weight limit, is the child of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beagle of Glen Este.
“The boy was well wrapped and ready for ‘mailing’ when the carrier received him to-day. Mr. Lytle delivered the boy safely at the address on the card attached, that of the boy’s grandmother, Mrs. Louis Beagle, who lives about a mile distant. The postage was fifteen cents and the parcel was insured for $50.”

This “baby in the mail” fun photograph takes the idea a step farther by having the baby be the letter carrier.

Another article, from 1915, describes a 3-year-old girl named Maude Smith who weighed 30 pounds and who was sent through the mail for 33 cents in Kentucky.
“The child was seated on a pack of mail sacks between the mail carrier's knees and was busily eating away at some candy it carried in a bag,” reports The Courier-Journal. “In the other hand it carried a big red apple and it smiled when the curious folks waved their hands and called to her.”
In the next few years, stories about children being mailed through rural routes would crop up from time to time as people pushed the limits of what could be sent through Parcel Post. In one famous case, on February 19, 1914, a four-year-old girl named Charlotte May Pierstorff was “mailed” via train from her home in Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents’ house about 73 miles away, Nancy Pope writes for the National Postal Museum. Her story has become so legendary that it was even made into a children’s book, Mailing May.

Young May Pierstorff, the most famous of the parcel post children packages.

The reasoning behind some parents’ willingness to send their little ones through the Parcel Post seems to have been threefold: postage was cheaper than a train ticket, a lot of trust was placed in mailmen.

The Post Office Department officially put a stop to “baby mail” in 1915, after postal regulations barring the mailing of human beings enacted the year before were finally enforced.

On June 13, 1920 the headline in the Washington Herald read: “CAN’T MAIL KIDDIES – DANGEROUS ANIMALS”. The Post Office, in its wisdom, had finally ruled that children were not “harmless animals” and because of their potentiality for danger may not be mailed as parcel post. “By no stretch of imagination or language,” said the ruling, “can children be classified as harmless, live animals that do not require food or water.”

Even today, postal regulations allow the mailing of live animals, including poultry, reptiles, and bees, under certain conditions. But no more babies, please.

(via Smithsonian)



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