Red Roses and Rancid Cheese: Testing the Limits of Mail Delivery

by Dean Rieck

Mention the United States Postal Service in a group of direct marketers and you'll get a half-hour rant on the flaws and foibles of the system. Grumbling about slow delivery. Groaning about poor management. Griping about rising postal rates. But does the USPS really deserve this venom?

Consider the bizarre but revealing study published in the Annals of Improbable Research (Volume 6, Issue 4). Researchers wanted to test the delivery limits of the USPS. So they mailed a bunch of eccentric items to see what would happen. Here are just a few:

Of course, not all the mailed items were delivered. An unwrapped hammer never arrived. A bottle of unopened spring water dropped into a pickup box was confiscated and consumed by a postal carrier as he worked his route. A can of soup, a lemon, and a bald tire are a few of the other things that didn't make the journey.

My favorite undelivered item was a helium balloon. The address was written on the balloon with magic marker. There was no postage affixed. When mailing the balloon at a postal station, the researcher "argued strongly that he should be charged a negative postage and refunded the postal fees because the transport airplane would actually be lighter as a result of [the] postal item." With a smile, the postal worker refused to accept it.

Out of 28 items, 18 were delivered. That's a delivery rate of 64 percent. Considering the odd nature of most of the items, these numbers are astonishing. Compare this to a zero percent delivery rate cited by the study for countries such as Puru, Turkey, and Egypt and you can't help but conclude that we've got it pretty good here in the United States.

When designing the New York General Post Office at 8th Avenue and 33rd Street, William Mitchell Kendall, an architect with the firm McKim, Mead & White, supplied an inspirational inscription that is familiar to every American:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

It's not an official motto. But it may as well be. Because despite all our grumbling, groaning, and griping, the United States Postal Service remains one of the most personal and reliable means of delivering things from one place to another at a reasonable cost.

"Personal" is the key word here. According to the most recent statistics available, the USPS employs 797,795 people. And their job is pick up your mail, transport it, and deliver it to any address you choose. All in a few days for a few cents each. Every piece of mail is handled by a human being at some point. And this personal touch makes all the difference.

It's why mail continues to be such an effective medium. It's why no new technology can ever fully replace it. It's why red roses and rancid cheese can get delivered even when they break all the rules.

So the next time you hear people carping, remind them that the men and women of the USPS are our partners — and amazingly cooperative partners at that. They deserve our respect, our support, and our thanks.

But please don't mail cheese. That's just nasty.

Read the full report on the postal experiments with pictures of some of the mailed items.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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