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
The items we mailed fall into several broad classifications, which are described here.
VALUABLE ITEMS. These were items that seemed stealable or had some apparent business worth.
Letter with stamp placed at top left corner (incorrect stamp location). Formal business-style letter, to formal business name, in high-quality envelope. Days to delivery, 21. The stamp was crossed out by hand; the top right corner of the envelope was stamped with the following: EVIDENCE POSTAGE WAS AFFIXED, ONE RATE OK'D.
$1 bill. Sealed in clear plastic, with label attached with address and postage. Days to delivery, 6.
$20 bill. Days to delivery, 4.
Football. Days to delivery, 6. Male postal carrier was talkative and asked recipient about the scores of various current games. Carrier noted that mail must be wrapped.
Pair of new, expensive tennis shoes. Strapped together with duct tape. Days to delivery, 7. When shoes were picked up at station, laces were tied tightly together with difficult-to-remove knot. Clerk noted that mail must be wrapped.
Rose. Postage and address were attached to a card that was tied to the stem. Delivery at doorstep, 3 days, beat up but the rose bud was still attached.
Wooden postcard. Dimension 4" x 6" x 3/8", showing a moose and mailed from Maine. Postage used was 20 cents in spite of the added weight, because investigators strongly expected successful delivery in this case. Days to delivery, 6.
Molar tooth. Mailed in clear plastic box. Made a nice rattling sound. Repackaged in padded mailer by unknown individual; the postage and address had been transferred to the outside of the new packaging. A handwritten note in a woman's writing inside read, "Please be advised that human remains may not be transported through the mail, but we assumed this to be of sentimental value, and made an exception in your case." Days to delivery, 14.
Sound-emitting toy. A monkey-in-box toy that, upon shaking, shouted, "Let me out of here! Help! Let me out of here!" Addressed in big letters to LITTLE JOHNNIE. Sound toy was equipped with a new battery. Delivery at doorstep, 6 days.
UNWIELDY ITEMS. These were items that would be a challenge to handle.
Hammer. Card was strapped to hammer handle; extra-large amount of postage was attached. Never received.
Feather duster. The card with postage and address was attached by wire to the handle. Days to notice of delivery, 6. Clerk at station commented that mail must be wrapped.
Ski. A large amount of postage was affixed to a card that was attached to the ski. The ski was slipped into a bin of postage that was being loaded into a truck behind a station (a collaborating staff member created a verbal disturbance up the street to momentarily distract postal workers' attention). Notice of postage due received, 11 days. Upon pickup at the station, the clerk and supervisor consulted a book of postage regulations together for 2 minutes and 40 seconds before deciding on additional postage fee to assess. Clerk asked if mailing specialist knew how this had been mailed; our recipient said she did not know. Clerk also noted that mail must be wrapped.
Never-opened small bottle of spring water. We observed the street corner box surreptitiously the following day upon mail collection. After puzzling briefly over this item, the postal carrier removed the mailing label and drank the contents of the bottle over the course of a few blocks as he worked his route.
Helium balloon. The balloon was attached to a weight. The address was written on the balloon with magic marker; no postage was affixed. Our operative 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 our postal item. This line of reasoning merely received a laugh from the clerk. The balloon was refused; reasons given: transportation of helium, not wrapped.
POINTLESS ITEMS. These were items that looked like a prank.
Can of soup. Never received.
Coconut. Fresh green coconut containing juice, mailed in Hawaii. Delivery at doorstep, 10 days.
Brick. Mailed at street corner box with ample postage for weight. Never received.
Lemon. Never received.
Small bag of kitty litter. Never received.
Bald tire. The card with postage was strapped to the tire. Refused at station.
SUSPICIOUS ITEMS. For reasons given.
Sound-emitting toy. Same toy as under "Sentimental" above, wrapped securely in brown paper. Never received.
Street sign. Conceivably a stolen item, or illegal possession. Notice of attempted delivery received, 9 days. Handed over at station with comment that mail must be wrapped.
Box of sand. Packaged in transparent plastic box to be visible to postal employees. Sent to give an impression of potentially hiding something. The plastic box had obviously been opened before delivery and then securely taped shut again. Delivery without comment at doorstep, 7 days.
Wrapped coconut. Wrapped in brown paper. Made ample sloshing sound, and round shape seemed suspicious. Attempted mailing at station. Clerk requested identification of object. When told it was a coconut, clerk informed our mailing specialist that a certificate from the US Department of Agriculture would be required before it could cross state lines. Not mailed.
Wrapped brick. Wrapped in brown paper; posted in street corner box with same amount of postage as was strapped to unwrapped brick. Extreme weight for size made package seem suspicious. Notice of attempted delivery received, 16 days. Upon pickup at station, our mailing specialist received a plastic bag containing broken and pulverized remnants of brick. Inside was a small piece of paper with a number code on it. Our research indicates that this was some type of US Drug Enforcement Agency release slip. The clerk made our mailing specialist sign a form for receipt.
DISGUSTING ITEMS. These items were malicious, potentially infectious, smelly, etc.>
Deer tibia. Our mailing specialist received many strange looks from both postal clerks and members of the public in line when he picked it up at the station, 9 days. The clerk put on rubber gloves before handling the bone, inquired if our researcher were a "cultist," and commented that mail must be wrapped.
Large wheel of cheese. The cheese was already extremely ripe (rancid) at the time of mailing. Mailed in cardboard box. The cheese had oiled its way through the bottom of the cardboard box by the time of pickup, 8 days. The box had been placed in a plastic bag.
Dead fish, old seaweed, etc. Mailed in cardboard box. Notice to pick up at station, 7 days. The postal supervisor warned our mailing specialist that he could be fined for mail service abuse, even as a recipient, should this happen again.
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.
This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.