The Black Inventor Who Helped Design the Iconic Blue USPS Mailbox

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For Black History Month, we are highlighting the people and projects you should know about all year long. 

In today's era of digital correspondence, you might not pay much attention to the big blue United States Postal Service (USPS) boxes found on the sidewalks near your home or outside your local post office. But for a long while, these "street letter boxes" — which are now better known as post, drop, or collection boxes — were a game-changer for anyone sending mail. Even today, many people without mailboxes rely on these blue beacons.

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While there have been dozens of iterations of these mail receptacles over the course of their long history, we have one man in particular to thank for the modern-day post box: Philip Bell Downing, a Black inventor who often doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

Who is Philip B. Downing?

Black Past reports that Downing was born on March 22, 1857, in Providence, Rhode Island, to a well-to-do family. The ​Newport Mercury​ newspaper reveals that his father was George T. Downing, an abolitionist, and his grandfather was restaurateur Thomas Downing, known for founding Downing's Oyster House in New York. The eatery was a favorite among the city's elite ​and​ a stop on the Underground Railroad.

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In adulthood, Philip B. Downing was a clerk with the Boston Customs House by day and an inventor by night. He held patents for at least five inventions — two for his street letter boxes, one for a railway switch, one for an envelope moistener, and one for a desktop notepad.

What is a post box?

Before cars were commonplace in society, some people had to travel great distances in order to mail a letter. Thus, post boxes were installed throughout neighborhoods to make it easier for people to send out their mail. The very first post box patent in the United States was filed by Philadelphia-based inventor Albert Potts, who stuck his mail repositories onto lamp posts.

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The problem? Some versions of the post box — and there were many — were an easy target for vandals and thieves, according to the National Postal Museum. They also weren't weatherproof, leading to soggy letters.

Downing's patent for a hinged door for his street letter boxes.
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How did Philip B. Downing improve the post box?

Downing cleverly devised a hinged door that would make it difficult for rain and snow — and unwanted hands — to get to the mail inside a post box. His patent for the device was approved in 1891. That same year, Downing also received another patent in for his "street letter box," which involved a chute with a swinging portion that would easily discharge mail into a postal worker's bag. "The object of my invention is to improve the construction of these devices, so that the mail can be collected from them more rapidly, easily, and certainly than is possible with the devices now in use," wrote Downing in his patent's description.

Today, the modern post box has features derived from Downing's inventions, making it a breeze for us to send mail within close proximity to where we live. So next time you use one of those iconic blue USPS receptacles on a mail run, take a moment to remember the name Philip B. Downing.

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