Arago: Exhibits

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Green Means Go

Van Dorn lamppost mailbox

Van Dorn manufactured street corner mail collection box, part of "Customers and Communities" gallery.

Green Means Go

America’s mailboxes and trucks have long been easy to identify by color. However, today’s blue mailboxes and white mail trucks have not always sported those colors. In the 1950s, postal boxes and trucks shared a color scheme of dark blue bottom bodies and blood-red tops. Before that, the Post Office Department marked their mailboxes and vehicles by painting them drab olive green. This color scheme was used from the late years of the 19th century through the early 1950s.

The drab olive green color was was widely-recognized as "postal" color on American streets. As the Department changed mailbox designs and shapes over the years, the green color remained constant. In this forest of green, postal officials decided to place some bright red mailboxes on city streets.

The new mailboxes, built by Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio, were durable, but rather homely, and originally painted postal green. In some cities officials asked their postmasters to spruce up the unattractive boxes. In response, a few postmasters added fancy handles. A number of others, possibly in response to a suggestion from postal officials, painted the boxes bright red.

The new color may have rendered the mailboxes less plain, but in return the new color scheme caused great confusion. The red mailboxes were mistaken for fire alarm or police call boxes. Instead of collecting city mail, they sat unused, until a frantic resident would struggle to pry open a mailbox to alert police or fire to an emergency. Postal officials determined to return the mailboxes to their original postal green.