Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Parcel Post Service became available to Americans on January 1, 1913. Farm families, having made Rural Free Delivery a nation-wide success, were especially anxious to welcome the new service. With the combination of RFD and Parcel post (originally called ‘parcels post’), package service was provided right from their mailbox.
It didn’t take long for citizens to get creative on what to send via parcel post. Just one week after its creation, a coffin manufacturer in Zanesville, OH sent a coffin to an undertaker in Dexter City, OH. The lid had to be sent separately, since there was an 11 pound limit. Total postage: 68¢.The Greenville Journal, Greenville, OH. https://www.newspapers.com/image/168539383/">1
The post office’s official 40 page parcel post regulation book DID prohibit using parcel post to mail “live or dead animals, birds, or poultry…” but said nothing about mailing human beings.Parcel post regulations: Effective from January 1, 1913. Washington: U.S. G.P.O..">2
Sure enough, just two weeks into the life of the post office’s new offering, Postmaster General Frank Harris Hitchcock was asked about that exact issue. “In the circumstances 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 January 16th, presents to him a problem with which he is quite unfamiliar,” reported the Mount Airy News on January 23.The Mount Airy News, Mt. Airy, NC. https://www.newspapers.com/image/64089018/">3
“Sir, I have been corresponding with a party in Pennsylvania about getting a Baby to raise (our house being without one),” wrote a woman from Ft. McPherson, GA. “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 company is too rough in handling?”
The article continues: “As babies, in the opinion of the Postmaster General, do not fall within the category of bees and bugs, the only live thing that may be transported by mail, the Postmaster General is apprehensive that he may not be of assistance to his correspondent.”
The press had a field day with this news item. “Perhaps that Georgia woman who wants to send a baby by parcel post desires to put the stork out of business,” smirked the Lenoir Topic [NC] on January 31.The Lenoir Topic, Lenoir, NC. https://www.newspapers.com/image/73445588/">4And the Mountain Scout of Taylorsville NC chimed in: “The trouble about sending a baby by parcel post is that no parents would be willing to admit that it was anything but first class.”The Mountain Scout, Taylorsville, NC. https://www.newspapers.com/image/66173337/">5
There was a darker side in response to the post office’s initial lax regulation. On September 4 The Sentinel, out of Carlisle, PA, ran an item on an anonymous person who shipped a dead newborn baby to a Philadelphia undertaker with a $1 bill and a note reading ‘This is from a poor mother. Please bury this body and accept the inclosed [sic] $1 in payment for your services.The Sentinel, Carlisle, PA. https://www.newspapers.com/image/344743807/">6
Not every couple wanting to adopt a child via parcel post was willing to be as open about it as the Ft. McPherson, GA woman; it was a new idea not fully accepted by society. For example, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on a childless couple in Little Sandy Creek, KY who wanted to adopt a baby from the Children’s Home of Cincinnati. The article called it “an unusual request” and noted that the names of the couple were being kept secret.The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY. https://www.newspapers.com/image/119537212/">7
In January 1914 the post office upped parcel post’s delivery weight limit to 50 pounds. “While a little hard on the postman, the plan to increase the weight limits will be regarded as a fine Christmas present,” glowed the Watauga Democrat [NC].Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC. https://www.newspapers.com/image/167007258/">8 It was applauding the idea that farmers could now ship produce, or booksellers could now send cartons of books, but the new weight limit produced the unintended side effect of bringing fresh inquiries about shipping not just babies, but small children up to 50 pounds.
And so, by March 1914, the new Postmaster General, Albert Sidney Burleson, issued directions to the nation’s postmasters that all human beings were barred from the mails.
Of course for some, laws are meant to be broken. Merely a month after the “no-humans” announcement, rural carrier B.H. Knepper in Maryland carried a 14-pound baby from its grandmother’s home in Clear Spring to the mother’s house in Indian Springs, twelve miles away. A local newspaper reported that the baby slept through the entire trip.Shepherdstown Register, Shepherdstown, WV. https://www.newspapers.com/image/466151095/">9
By far the most common parcel post requests were for babies/children to be sent between relatives, as in the above story.
However, a woman in Bell-Jellico, KY made the news when she sought out Postmaster John L. Shuff of Cincinnati in April 1915, “requesting him to send her a baby by mail. She stated she would meet the train.” Shuff referred her to the Home for the Friendless, “with the suggestion that she take the matter up with the official there.”Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. https://www.newspapers.com/image/70919296/">10
Also in April 1915, 6 year old Edna Neff took a record 720 mile parcel post trip from Pensacola, FL to Christiansburg, VA. “Wearing a placard on which was her name and destination and 15¢ in parcel post stamps, she passed through the terminal in Savannah, GA on March 30 on her way to Christiansburg, VA, where her father is awaiting her,” said the Greensboro Patriot [NC].The Greensboro Patriot, Greensboro, NC. https://www.newspapers.com/image/63204682/">11 “Little Edna weighs just under the fifty pounds limit.
“Edna lived in Pensacola with her mother, who had not lived with her husband, the child’s father, in some time. The probation officer in Pensacola offered to send Edna back to Virginia, and the mother offered no objection. The officer had no funds to pay the fare of a grown-up traveling companion for the child, so he did the next best thing, which was to intrust [sic] her to Uncle Sam and the railroad officials.”
The article was quick to point out that “transportation of a human being by parcel post is a violation of the postal regulations and the incident will doubtless get some one in trouble.”
In August 1915, three-year-old Maud Smith made what appears to be the last journey of a child by parcel post, when her grandparents in Caney, KY mailed her 40 miles via the Railway Mail Service (R.M.S.) to visit her sick mother in Jackson. Rail clerk J.T. Sebastine figured there would be an inquiry, and so he wrote to the Jackson postmaster: “Dear Sir: Baby received 8:15 a.m. from Postmaster, Caney, KY in person. I doubt the legality of sending, but it was put on train, and what can I do but deliver and report?”The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144031930/">12
After the story made the news, Superintendent John Clark of the Cincinnati division of the R.M.S. investigated, questioning why the postmaster in Caney had allowed a child on a mail train when that was explicitly against regulations. The story disappeared from the news cycle after that.
Finally the Post Office cracked down for real in 1920. First Assistant Postmaster General John C. Koons clarified in a June 12 ruling that babies mailed via parcel post “do not come under the classification of harmless live animals not requiring food or water while in transit, and therefore may not be transported as parcel post.”The Times Dispatch, Richmond, VA. https://www.newspapers.com/image/168506684/">13
Attempts by the citizenry to ship babies and children via parcel post dropped precipitously after that.
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