The Bank That Was Sent By Mail
The US Post Office delivered a lot more than letters when it began...
Did you know that there was a time when children were ‘mailed’ via the US Postal Service?
My friend Jesse tipped me off to the story about Charlotte May Pierstorff, a five-year old girl who was ‘mailed’ to visit her grandmother in Idaho in 1914.
The postage for the 48-pound girl was cheaper than buying a train ticket, so little Charlotte rode in the mail car with a 32 cent stamp on her coat.
I wrote a story about Charlotte (and other kids who were sent via the mail) in Curious Minds in 2022.
But in my research, I learned a lot about the history of the US Parcel Post service (it’s more interesting than it may sound!).
Most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about the postal service, and if we do, we probably don’t associate the idea of ‘innovation’ with it.
But when the US Post Office introduced its Parcel Post service in 1913, it was an innovation.
It changed the lives of millions of Americans, who suddenly had access to all kinds of goods and services.
And when I read that people got creative with how Parcel Post could be used, I was curious…
Perhaps the most creative user of the Parcel Post service was William Horace Coltharp.
In 1916, William Coltharp had a problem.
He was building a new bank in Vernal, a town in northeastern Utah.
Vernal was located in a high desert valley bordered by mountains and cliffs, and was only accessible by rough roads.
Coltharp, a bank director (who later became bank president) and the other bank directors agreed to build a modern two-story building for their bank.
And they would need thousands of bricks.
They could get cheaper, locally-fired bricks for most of the project, but Coltharp and the others wanted pressed bricks for the facade of the building.
But the nearest pressed brick supplier was more than 125 miles away, in Salt Lake City.
Shipping the bricks by commercial freight wagon would cost $2,250 – four times the price of the bricks.
Colthrap did some research in the postal regulations, and discovered that Vernal was in a separate zip code from Salt Lake City.
That meant he could have packages mailed via Parcel Post – at a much cheaper rate.
So he bought the bricks from Salt Lake City.
The bricks were individually wrapped, and packed in crates of 10 to meet Parcel Post’s 50-pound limit.
There was no direct mail route between Salt Lake City and Vernal at that time, so the bricks were shipped over a 407-mile route using railroad, trucks, and wagons.
Some accounts say that 80,000 bricks were shipped for the project, while a historian from the US Postal Service says 15,000 bricks were mailed (at a staggering weight of 37.5 tons).
Either way, it was a lot of bricks.
And it caused chaos for the postal service.
The massive shipment cost the Postal Service a fortune, destroyed one of the railway company’s trucks, and infuriated the Postmaster in Vernal, who sent a telegram to Washington to complain.
“He said, ‘Some SOB is trying to ship a whole building through the US mail!’ – except it was a little more colorful than that,” said Kevin Van Tassell, a former manager of the bank.
But the cheap postage rates of the time contributed to a construction boon in Vernal.
Merchants in Vernal followed Coltharp’s lead, and records show they used Parcel Post to deliver a variety of construction materials and merchandise, including oven doors for a bakery, lumber for beehives, and 12 tons of tomatoes.
The Post Office had rules about ‘large or unusual shipments’ at that time, but the definition was vague – and up to interpretation.
Inspired in part by Coltharp’s bricks, the Post Office officially imposed a maximum daily limit of 200 pounds per customer.
The Postmaster General even wrote:
“It is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail.”
But by the time the limit was implemented, the Bank of Vernal (also known as ‘The Parcel Post Bank’ ) was finished.
William Coltharp died in 1956, at age 72.
His obituary in The New York Times noted how he had saved $1.45 on each hundred pounds of bricks by shipping them from Salt Lake City by Parcel Post rather than by railroad freight.
The Parcel Post Bank, now known as Zions Bank, is still standing on West Main Street in Vernal.
Though the policy changes ended massive single shipments, by 1921, more than three tons of parcel post were arriving in Vernal every day.
An article in The Vernal Express on November 18, 1921 noted how important Parcel Post was to the town, writing:
“To give an idea of what comes in as parcel post because of our being so far off a railroad, the mention of a few will be interesting. Bert Evans shipped in all the fire brick for his large new bake oven at the bakery, also all of the oven doors, etc.
Our merchants receive bags of cement, rolls of woven wire fencing, garden hose, nails, building paper, roofing, lumber for bee hives, cases of canned goods, paint, castings, pipe cut so it can come through the mails, electric batteries for cars, tires, electric supplies for the power plant, bales of dry goods, large record books for the recorder's office. . . . in fact nearly everything brought to Vernal and surrounding territory including practically all of the merchandise.”
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