Post boxes – a very public object


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Ben Barker

24th October 2013


Last Tuesday Royal Mail became a plc. It will face an uphill task to survive, with Fedex and UkMail competing for the easy money, whilst it remains solely responsible for the universal access service. Privatising now was weird timing, given Royal mail made a substantial profit for the tax payer last year and the shares have nearly doubled in value since floatation (we spent 500 years growing the company for government to sell it at half price), but it’s been coming for a while. Either way, the red boxes on our streets now belong to private investors. Thomas Pynchon’s novella, The Crying of Lot 49, makes a good companion read. Its description of a secret underground postal service, running alongside the state funded service, encourages us to imagine a different future for the Royal Mail and it’s boxes.

For me seeing a post box creates a muscle longing, in part from the disappointment of no longer really using them, and in part from their role in my childhood. Growing up the boxes were treasure chests on the street, I dreamt of arriving at collection time and seeing inside. Posting a letter was just as charged, every child wanted the responsibility, an irreversible act that epitomised growing up. There were 3 post boxes in my village, two pillar boxes, gatekeepers to the nations door matts. The third was built into a stone wall outside of the church. Slightly out of the way and hardly used, yet also the input for an international communication system, serviced everyday on the off chance. Imagine how many empty postboxes RM staff open on any given day (can we get a montage of that?). As we rely on it less, the services impressive scale becomes more apparent, the USPS still delivers more mail in 1 day than Fed Ex does in a year.

The post box in question, not quite as moss-covered as I remember, it’s CB24 447 PB fans

With uptake and visibility being two of the biggest challenges facing emerging networks, the postal service has units everywhere. Britain is covered with red, logically numbered and strategically situated boxes. Each one individually identifiable using an alpha-numeric sequence printed on the front (a derivative of the post code), making them a located (but not overly) reference point that’s positioned in and around communities. It’s a system ready for re-appropriation.

A map of all the post boxes used during Hello Lamp Post, it’s worth noting that about a 3rd more were talked to, but weren’t locatable as the code was formatted in an ambigous way, or only the first part had been used, thus not making it specific to one box. The really popular one is a fake

The semi-located nature of post boxes feels right for a few behaviours, information exchange, exploration and game-like experiences. You’re normally near a box, even in remote places such as Knoydart where you can find this guy who is only served by ferry, but their discovery may require a degree of exploration (there’s a street view game in there somewhere). Royal mail doesn’t publish the precise locations, but their are some neat OSM tools for finding them, and for information on the quality of that data check this article (The data’s not perfect, but is fun to use).

So how is the position of a post box chosen, or rather what can we deduce from seeing one? The obligation on the postal service until recently was:

In each postcode area where the delivery point density is not less than 200 delivery points per square kilometre, not less than 99% of users of postal services are within 500 metres of a letter box. (DUSP clause 1.8.4)

Which sounds clumsy, flimsy and as pointed out here, was was not in keeping with the universal access policy:

That criteria only applied to the 61 PCAs (post code areas) where there is a delivery point density greater than 200 delivery points per square km, resulting in the exclusion of predominantly rural PCAs.

In part in response to Royal Mail going private, Ofcom now requires that 98% of the population of the country is within 500m of a post box, which didn’t change a lot but it has protected the location of a good part of Britains 115,000 post boxes. Following that criteria change, more than ever, a post box serves as an indicator of population density.

An international system, a photo from Delhi earlier in the year, where codes applied to an area rather than a single unit.

Post boxes have a great potential as a platform, game object or exchange point. The impending change in our relationship with the service makes the discussion of what’s next more relevant (remember there are 115,000 in Britian). In part based on my fascination with them as a space full of potential as a child, we explored a proposal for the Knee High Challenge, a design council initiative targeted at under 5’s, that focused on post boxes as an object for sharing play ideas, a meeting point, where the opportunities for play or adventure in the area could be listed. Our proposal, (which has happily been shortlisted) may well use a different technology and language but post boxes are still very much in our thoughts. Pynchens novel is a reminder of how much importance the postal service is in our culture and how much it is a part of our past, (though his Tyrstero service used waste bins). By showing how various marginalised groups felt the Trystero and it’s iconic muted horn existed to serve them he hints at what is core to our postal service. It works the same for everybody, a universal service allows everyone a feeling ownership. That may no longer strictly be true for Royal Mail, but it’s boxes are still very much in the community.

To paraphrase game studio SlingShot, building on existing infrastructure gives us a level of access and street level integration we could never normally afford. Whilst private investors work out what that means for them, we should also consider alternate futures for these very public objects.



A project to photograph every box:
The letter box study group:
Tool for finding post boxes:
How well mapped are post boxes on OSM:
Historic postal service, core to Pynchons novel (thanks to Tom for the recommend):