I bought this complete bank of fifty one 1880s nickel-plated post office lockboxes in the Sierras from a woman who’d owned it a very long time. It needed some cleaning, but was otherwise in great shape after 120 years.
Complete banks of old post office boxes are scarce because most people who find them break them up to sell the boxes individually on eBay. The woman who owned these however was a postal collector (actually, her husband had been) and clearly appreciated it as a piece of furniture.
Here’s the listing for these doors in the bible of post office box doors, ‘An Illustrated Guide to Post Office Lockbox Doors by Jane H. Ingram’ (1999 2nd edition). These are fancy boxes with beveled glass, and the nickel plating is still in great shape. When I sent pictures of these boxes to Jane in 2010, she informed me that this exact model of lockbox was still in service in a post office in Gilbertsville, NY.
These doors are very lightweight, compared to later P.O. Box doors – it must be the ‘rolled brass,’ which isn’t very thick. They’re attached with simple lightweight hinges and a lightweight lock. Maybe during the 1880s, the earliest days of self service mail pickup, theft wasn’t that big an issue?
Some post office boxes require quite a bit of detective work to figure out the combinations. These however are easy… you just look on the back of the door and line up the slots on the back of the lock dials, then record the letters on the front.
The wooden case for these boxes has no markings, except for the mysterious number 2664 stamped on the top. It also has these nice old tongue and groove joints:
Here’s a shot of the back – the cubbyholes on top are perfect for storing bottles (e.g. wine), and the ones on the bottom are large enough to store much more than that, e.g. printer paper or whatever:
Here’s a shot of the post office in Gilbertsville, NY, where this exact style of box was still in service at least up through 2015.
And here they are in action inside:
Many small post offices around the country still have really old bronze and brass post office boxes in service, including those that were built by the WPA in the 1930s.
To learn about the evolution and history of specific post offices around the country, check out James H. Bruns’ book on the subject. And if you’re really into postal eye candy, you should absolutely also buy this more recent (and totally awesome) photo book, Art Deco Mailboxes.