Postal Experiments

by Jeff Van Bueren

Having long been genuine admirers of the United States Postal Service (USPS), which gives amazingly reliable service especially compared with many other countries, our team of investigators decided to test the delivery limits of this immense system. We knew that an item, say, a saucepan, normally would be in a package because of USPS concerns of entanglement in their automated machinery. But what if the item were not wrapped? How patient are postal employees? How honest? How sentimental? In short, how eccentric a behavior on the part of the sender would still result in successful mail delivery?

Testing the Limits

We sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size, as well as a few items packaged as noted. We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting. We discovered that although some items were never delivered, most of the objects of even highly unusual form did get delivered, as long as the items had a definitely ample value of stamps attached. The Postal Service appears to be amazingly tolerant of the foibles of its public and seems occasionally willing to relax specific postal regulations.


Our research staff began the project by obtaining and reviewing relevant information on USPS regulations and discussing, in a limited and very hypothetical manner, the planned project with USPS 800 number personnel. A group of mailable objects was then assembled, stamped with abundant postage by weight and size, and mailed at public postal collection boxes (when possible to cram the object through the aperture) or at postal stations (if possible). A card was strapped to the object with duct tape or stranded strapping tape, and postage was affixed to the card, except as otherwise noted below.

Senders and receivers were interchangeable; the mailings were double-masked to conceal the identity of our mailing specialists, and gloves were used to prepare the mailings (to avoid fingerprints). In no case was a return address given; each object either went forward to its destination or was lost to follow-up. An object was considered lost if it was not received within the 180-day study parameter. All objects were sent first class using five-digit ZIP codes to actual domestic addresses, and the number of days to delivery were recorded (excluding postal holidays). The condition of the object upon receipt was also recorded, if it had changed, as was any unusual communication, verbal or written, from the postal carrier or counter clerk.

Materials and Findings

VALUABLE ITEMS. These were items that seemed stealable or had some apparent business worth.


UNWIELDY ITEMS. These were items that would be a challenge to handle.

POINTLESS ITEMS. These were items that looked like a prank.

SUSPICIOUS ITEMS. For reasons given.

DISGUSTING ITEMS. These items were malicious, potentially infectious, smelly, etc.

Summary and Concluding Remarks

First, this experiment yielded a 64% delivery rate (18/28), an almost two-thirds success rate. (For our purposes, "delivery" constituted some type of independent handling by the USPS and subsequent contact regarding the object, regardless of whether we got to see or keep the object or whether it arrived whole.) This is astounding, considering the nature of some of the items sent. This compares with a 0% rate of receipt of fully wrapped packages from certain countries of the developing world, such as Peru, Turkey, and Egypt. Admittedly, those were international mailings, and thus not totally comparable; nevertheless, the disparity is striking.

Second, the delivery involved the collusion of sequences of postal workers, not simply lone operatives. The USPS appears to have some collective sense of humor, and might in fact here be displaying the rudiments of organic bureaucratic intelligence.

Finally, our investigation team felt remorse for some of its experimental efforts, most particularly the category "Disgusting," after the good faith of the USPS in its delivery efforts. We sought out as many of the USPS employees who had (involuntarily) been involved in the experiment as we could identify, and gave them each a small box of chocolate.

We, and all scientists, owe a debt of gratitude to these civil servants. Without them, we would have had but little success in pushing the envelope.

Copyright © 2000 Annals of Improbable Research.

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