Q: Can you send an unattached stamp through the mail with an address written on it? A: No, you can’t but wow we wish you could.

This pointless question recently spawned a work-disrupting conversation about what can and can’t be sent through the mail. The rules governing mailable items have tightened up a lot in recent years. But in the first few years after the establishment of the parcel post in 1913 people were really pushing the envelope – sending butter, eggs, livestock and even stranger items.

Some even used the service to ship their children in an effort to avoid the cost of train travel, as shown in the photo above from the Smithsonian collection. On January 16, 1913,  the New York Times reported on a disturbing letter received by the Postmaster General, in which the writer requested information on how to properly wrap a baby for transport. Eventually the Postal Service decided that children didn’t fit the definition of ‘harmless live animals which do not require food or water while in transit’, putting an end to a delightful and economical practice that made parents everywhere very happy.

For a real belly laugh, read the 1911 testimony of Mr. W. J. Pilkington of Des Moines, Iowa, delivered to a Congressional subcommittee considering the establishment of the parcel post service. He argued that if rural families were able to have goods delivered to their homes they would travel into town less frequently, affecting education, church attendance and ‘the finer instincts in our beings, which cause us to want to have better homes, better furniture, better everything.’

Some other gems from this font of reason:

‘…[T]he man who buys and wears up-to-date clothing because of having gone into a store and having it explained to him is a better man for wearing up-to-date clothing. …The man who rides in an automobile is a better man for his country than the man who rides in a two-wheeled cart.’

‘It would be better for our country if by some means we could force every farmer to visit his local town at least once a week…’

‘[The farmer’s children], when they visit the local town, see the well-kept lawns; they see things that tend to cause them to want these thing, these well-arranged homes, etc., on the farms where they live.’

Not surprisingly, Mr. Pilkington was the publisher of the local Merchants’ Trade Journal.