The most popular image on the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Flickr account is a vintage photo of a somber postal carrier holding a baby in a mail bag. Oddly enough, this photo was staged, but several children were sent via “mail” in the 1910s.
The popular photo features the almost unbelievable sight of a postal carrier holding a mail bag with a baby’s upper body sticking out. It can be found in the Smithsonian Institution’s Flickr page, and it has been cited as the organization’s most popular photo “by far.” A year after it was uploaded, it had over 42,000 views and nearly 1,000 favorites. An article about the photo also made the top of Reddit’s “Today I Learned” in October 2014.
Smithsonian points out that, although the photo is often used in stories about the history of mailed children, this was a “staged piece.”
History: Post Office Regulations
Parcel post was introduced on January 1, 1913. Prior to this date, the delivery of packages had to be secured by private carrier. The 1913 law, however, lacked in many details, prompting some creative parents to take advantage of the system by “mailing” their children rather than purchasing full-price train tickets.
The caption for the photo above on the Smithsonian Flickr page points out that “The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples.”
Real Cases of “Mailed” Babies
The Smithsonian article on the matter quotes National Postal Museum historian Nancy Pope, who stated that only two children were actually “mailed.” These children weren’t stuffed into mail bags as the staged photo implies, but rode on train cars as freight mail in attempts by their parents to secure cheaper fares.
In our research, however, we found more than just two examples of “mailed” children, both before and after regulations specifically ruled out the mailing of humans.
Batvia, Ohio: January, 1913
In January 1913, the New York Times reported on the delivery of an infant via rural carrier in Batvia, Ohio. The paper labeled the mail carrier as “the first man to accept and deliver under parcel post conditions a live baby.” That event appears to have been something of a local novelty, as the child was only taken one mile down the road and “insured for $50.”
Pine Hollow, PA: January 1913
A small girl was “mailed” at a cost of 45 cents in rural Pennsylvania. The girl rode with the mail carrier from Sharpsville, PA to Clay Hollow.
Kansas: February 1914
In February 1914, the Times wrote of a two-year old child sent 25 miles via parcel post in Wellington Kansas. The boy wore a tag around his neck showing that postage of 18 cents had been paid on his behalf. The article notes that “he rode with mail clerks, shared his lunch with them.”
May Pierstorff: February 1914
A 48.5 pound “package” was delivered in February 1914: four-year old May Pierstorff of Idaho. Her parents wanted to send her to visit her grandparents 73 miles away, and found that there were no regulations regarding the mailing of people. Rather than spending $1.50 on a train ticket, the girl’s parents placed her on a train with 53 cents in postage affixed to her coat. May’s story is the basis of the children’s book Mailing May, and is perhaps the most famous case of a “mailed” child.
Maryland: March 1914
The Smithsonian blog mentions that a 14-pound baby in Maryland who was transported via rural carrier from its grandmother’s home to its mother’s house, traveling a total distance of 12 miles. The baby is reported to have slept through the trip.
Edna Neff: March 1915
The longest known distance of “mailed” child was that of Edna Neff, a six-year old girl who traveled from Florida to Virginia. Edna rode on a train, and just made the 50-pound weight limit. Her trip totaled 15 cents in postage.
Helen Combs of Tarkin, Missouri was carried by a rural carrier named Charles Hayes. The girl was delivered to her grandmother, who was also on Hayes’ route.
Kentucky: September 1915
Three-year old Maud Smith was sent via parcel post from her grandmother’s home to her mother’s house. That case was investigated by postal officials, as it violated guidelines regarding the mailing of humans.
1913 Times-Dispatch Article
A January 17, 1913 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch discussed the legality of mailing children. In an article entitled, “May Mail Babies by Parcels Post,” the article wrote:
The mailing of babies by parcel post is a real infant industry which Postmaster General Hitchcock is asked to foster.
In view of his bachelorhood, Mr. Hitchcock has considered seriously the calling into consultation of experts in the transportation of babies, as a letter which he received today presents to him a problem with which he is quite unfamiliar. To add to his embarrassment, the letter contains a note of genuine pathos which appeals strongly to the Postmaster General.
The letter in the article, from a man in Ft. McPherson Georgia asks “what specifications to use in wrapping so it (Baby) would comply with regulations and be allowed shipment by parcel post…”
February 1914 Washington Times Story
In a February 13, 1914 Washington Times story, we read that the loophole for mailing children was closed after an inquiry about mailing a two-year old child.
Parcel Post Rules Now Prefer Bees to Babies
Queen bees are the only living things that can be handled by parcel post, according to a decision by Second Assistant Postmaster General Stewart, who was asked if a baby could be transported through the mails.
G.W. Merrill, postmaster of Stratford, Okla, notified the department that J.B. Denton wanted to send a two-year old baby from Twin Falls, Idaho, to his post office, and that there were no regulations in the parcel post system covering the case.
Reference to the regulations showed Postmaster Merrill to be correct, and the department ruled that all human beings and live animals, except queen bees, are barred from the parcel post.
The Google Trends chart below shows interest in the search phrase “mail a baby.” As you can see, it has had several peaks over the years, with the biggest surge as of this writing in mid-2013.
After the introduction of parcel post in 1913, several children were “mailed” as a way to circumvent train fares and other costs. Children were not packaged or stuffed into mail bags, but rode on trains or with mail carriers. As many as eight children were sent in this manner before the loophole was closed (and a few after) by the post office by 1915. The popular photo above, however, was staged.
- 100 Years of Parcels, Packages, and Packets, Oh My! (Nancy A. Pope: Postal Museum/Smithsonian)
- The Baby is in the Mail (Useless Information, September 22, 2013)
- When it was Legal to Mail a Baby (Robert Longley, About News)
- Discoveries: Mailing Babies by Parcel Post? (Geneaology Bank, July 2011)
Updated August 9, 2015
Originally published October 2014