- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The humble household mailbox is more than a receptacle for mail. It also can be a design statement, a reflection of a homeowner’s personality and a piece of folk art worthy of inclusion in a museum.

“What they all have in common is the idea that ‘this thing in front of my house equates with me. It represents me to the public. You may not know me as [an] individual, but this is my public face, the way I want you to know me,’ ” says Nancy Pope, historian for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The museum displays a number of original mailboxes donated or loaned to it by their owners, who, more often than not, also were the fabricators.

“It gets people thinking and looking when they are out driving along. The design may be a small thing like painting on a butterfly or flower,” she adds.

The subject of novelty mailboxes also became a book, titled “Mailbox, USA” by writer Rachael Epstein, who compiled photographs of a number of them around the country.

City dwellers who only have recourse to a metal slot or locked box for daily delivery may have to settle for admiring the self-expression of others on view in the museum, at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Included is one showing the figure of Uncle Sam holding up a replica of the Capitol, with the box representing the building. Another is the figure of an old-fashioned biplane whose front engine is the opening of the box.

Photographs of mailboxes submitted for consideration but rejected because of their size included one that was a full-size Arabian horse and another a pair of life-size dolphins attached to a huge rock. “A dolphin’s nose would open for the delivery of mail,” Ms. Pope says.

U.S. Postal Service regulations stipulate a few matters in regard to residential mailboxes. Among them are the dimensions that must be followed both for custom mailboxes and by manufacturers of standard mailboxes sold in stores. (A minimum 6.2 inches and maximum 11 inches in width, for example, for the familiar dome-shaped box fixed atop a post.) The letters U.S. MAIL must be printed in capitals a minimum inch high.

Rules regarding the height of the support post and distance from the road are under the direction of the area’s postmaster and depend on whether mail is delivered by a carrier on foot or, more likely, by truck.

Beyond that, designs for custom creations are limited only by the imagination, although too provoking or possibly too enticing a design can result in some negative reactions from neighbors, homeowner associations, local vandals or all three.

Cathy Mudd, owner of a cleaning service in Annapolis, has had her mailbox vandalized three times and even once had a small bomb planted inside, but without much effect. She was out of town at the time, she says, but neighbors reported back to her that a firetruck came anyway.

“Kids love to do it,” she says, calling the act a copy of a scene in the 1986 movie “Stand by Me” that shows young truants attacking mailboxes with baseball bats for fun.

The enticement on top of the box was a baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger, “mashed” down on a bed of spikes and hence called a Nailbox by its creator, Bradford McDougall, a Connecticut artist and furniture maker who is a former Baltimore resident. It was easy enough to yank off the bat, says Ms. Mudd, but the mailbox itself has withstood all other efforts at taming. “People have run into it with their cars, and it didn’t budge, but it did mess up the car,” she boasts.

Mr. McDougall, who makes what he calls yard art, charges $1,000 or more for his creations depending on time and materials involved. “Mailboxes normally can stand up to vandals, but nothing survives a snow plow,” he says.

He recently completed a work with a Valentine’s Day theme for a direct-mail firm called ADVO. The company used it as a gimmick at a Chicago conference whose theme was “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The idea was to show that “people love getting mail from us,” says Sheila Trauernicht, ADVO communications director. Handmade valentines inside the box were offered as gifts to guests at a cocktail party.

Dr. Donna Magid, a radiologist at Johns Hopkins University, met Mr. McDougall 10 years ago at a craft show and ordered three mailboxes, one of them a dramatic piece meant for her back yard that contained 7-foot-tall metal blades suggesting Oriental grass. Another was a copy of his Nailbox that she says, to her delight, annoyed the neighbors; a third in use now by the street has little silver lizards climbing over the box. “The neighbors are much happier with the lizards,” she says.

“I always wanted something different,” says Helen Rehl of Malvern, Pa., explaining why she choose Mr. McDougall eight years ago to create a mailbox with several ravens on it. “They express for me part of the mythology I grew up with in Norway. The Norse mythology shows the god Odin with a pair of ravens named Hugin and Munin who sit on his shoulders and fly out into the world and bring back news.

“My mailman loves it, and people will stop in now and then to ask where I found it,” she says. Made of 1/4-inch steel, the mailbox is mounted on a railroad tie cemented into the ground by Mr. McDougall and, to date, it has proved to be tamper-free. Mrs. Rehl’s husband paints the ravens black to complement the rusty patina of the box.

Making a mailbox of one’s own at home can be an arduous and expensive proposition, Mr. McDougall points out, because a sheet of steel costs $300 and must be bought whole. The Internet is full of Web sites advertising mass-manufactured mailboxes for sale, available in a variety of finishes and colors and featuring such quirky novelty elements as a fish’s mouth or a birdhouse.

More heavily fortified mailboxes that are said to discourage thieves are being sold as “identity safe” to satisfy public fears. Such boxes, made to conform to U.S. Postal Service regulations, are designed so only the owner can retrieve mail easily, with either a key or an electronic keypad. Mail drops through a top opening into a bottom well. The boxes come with such trademarked names as the Defender and weigh more than 100 pounds.

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